If one lingers a beat longer than usual while looking at Michael Dressel‘s photographs of people in Los Angeles, California, something beneath the surface, easy to miss at first glance, will be revealed. It may be a gesture or glance, a detail of content within the frame lingering to the side of or behind the first visual plane. Los Angeles as a place is like this, too, with struggle and perseverance and defeat and beautiful ordinariness beyond the shiny surface. Built on dreams and stories, the movie industry and all it represents is iconic worldwide. However, there is more to the streets of LA, and the chasm between the idealized and the actual daily life of many Angelenos is vast.
Taken between 2014 and 2020, Los(t) Angeles is a collection of black and white images holding classic street photography elements, while also revealing complex layering of human moments caught and noted and held for the viewer to observe. The image sequencing also provides another level of content, with graphic or humanistic parallels revealed by the image juxtapositions reflecting irony or reinforcing messaging.
Dressel notes that his own personal history plays a role in his vantage point. Born in East Berlin prior to the unification of Germany, Dressel was arrested while trying to escape and climb over the Berlin Wall and spent two years in prison. The past 30 years he’s called Los Angeles home and works in the entertainment industry.
“The reality one encounters on the streets there has very little to do with the images that are projected into the world from there, but allows insights into the real condition of this society as well as the inner and outer life of its inhabitants. This discrepancy reminds me of my youth in East Germany where the difference between propaganda and reality was similarly large,” he shares.
Matthias Harder, director of the Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin, Germany, provided an essay for the book and he also points out the personal perspective Dressel brings to what and how he sees and subsequently highlights in his photographs. “He, too, lost everything as a young man and reinvented himself in California, far from home. In this respect, he could recognize kindred spirits in some people who live on the street but might find their way back into society. We can learn a lot from his Los(t) Angeles project, which is a work in progress: about social tipping points and crashes into parallel worlds, about the often overlooked face in the crowd of a metropolis—and ultimately about ourselves with regard to our own prejudices.”
At a time in history where the United States, and much of the world, is reckoning with ‘social tipping points’ and prejudices in the management of a global pandemic and social and cultural unrest, these photographs provide an honest and sincere reflection of humanity and possibility.
Harder notes, “Many of those whom Dressel portrays in the streets of Hollywood, Venice Beach, or Downtown LA once came full of hope to this desired place, which after a while became a trap for them … The dualism of rich and poor, beautiful and ugly, and healthy and sick coexists in many metropolises, but in Los Angeles these extremes seem to be especially obvious.”
But the message does not stop here. Dressel sees people, sees individual stories, sees the nuance, and the images reflect a sense of honoring the pain, loss, achievements, and quirks of human behavior he discovers. Harder continues, “When leafing through this publication, we also encounter the loud, shrill, self-celebrating life that gives us renewed hope.”
In an interview also included in the book, Dressel says: “…But I do believe in magic. The magic that happens when I am pointing a camera at life and freeze a few hundredths of a second into an image. Afterwards that image turns into this thing that communicates what I think and feel about the world. This magic allows me to photograph myself into the world.”
Born in 1958, Michael Dressel grew up behind the Iron Curtain in East Berlin obsessed with film and desiring to be a painter. In attempting to escape the Worker’s Paradise he was captured climbing the Wall and spent two years in a Stasi prison, years he calls “the most awful, important and formative” of his life. In 1986 he washed ashore in Los Angeles, where he has spent thirty years editing sound for movies, and photographing everyday life on the streets of Los Angeles, Berlin, Paris, among other locations..
About the Contributors:
Matthias Harder is Director of the Helmut Newton Foundation, Berlin, Germany. F. Scott Hess is an artist and associate professor at Laguna College of Art + Design, Laguna Beach, California.
Michael Dressel : LOS(T) ANGELES
Text by Matthias Harder and an interview between F. Scott Hess and Michael Dressel
Co-published by Hartmann Books and Gingko Press
Hard Cover with foil stamping
176 pages, 110 photographs
Price: 38 Euros