It isn’t often that one decides to change career paths at the age of 69, but that’s precisely what Paul Kessel did. In his previous life, Kessel was a psychologist and psychoanalyst but these days he roams the streets armed with his camera, capturing street scenes that catch his eye.
For his most recent series, Williamsburg: Old and new, which opens at Umbrella Arts in the East Village on Thursday, the Upper West Sider, who is now 76, turned his lens towards unchartered territory. “Two years ago my daughter, who was around 28, moved [to Williamsburg],” says Kessel. “Once she moved there, it felt like my home base. I guess anywhere she is kind of feels like home.”
At the time, the native New Yorker was unfamiliar with the neighborhood and initially his perception fit with how many view Williamsburg. “The first few months, all I knew was Bedford Avenue,” he says. Some local friends, however, showed him there was more to Williamsburg than young creatives sporting plaid. “I learned that the so called ‘hipsters’ are only a very, very small part of it,” he says.
This revelation is what led to a series that juxtaposes the old with the new. There are charming elderly folks playing dominos in front of a graffiti wall, a naïve young woman standing on her doorstep as a group of Hasidic Jews pass by and an idle construction worker, ready to build or destroy. But how did Kessel select his subjects? “I’m attracted to someone that looks different, not your typical person,” Kessel says. He does, however, make one coy admission. “In the beginning, there were a lot of young, good-looking women.”