Michael Dressel: Los(t) Angeles

By Peggy Roalf   Friday January 7, 2022

"I’m interested in the people that came to Hollywood full of dreams and hopes which never materialized and now eke out a hard living in the shadows of the 'Dream Factories' without being able to escape their field of gravity." —Michael Dressel

Born in 1958, Michael Dressel grew up behind the Iron Curtain obsessed with film and desiring to be a painter. In attempting to escape from East Berlin 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. He made his way to Los Angeles in 1986, found work editing sound for movies and began making black-and-white photographs of the people he encountered during off hours. The result is Los(t) Angeles: Photographs by Michael Dressel (Hartmann Books/Gingko Press).

“Coming to LA at 27 felt like a great liberation, artistically, he says. “When I arrived, art didn't seem to matter here. Hollywood reigned supreme. Art was more of a New York thing. So I felt like I didn't have to live up to anything. I could just do whatever, because nobody cared anyway. The LA-Berlin theme is still a large part of my work.”

“Sometimes I say jokingly ‘I am a camera’”, he continues. “Even without carrying one, I'm constantly scanning my surroundings for constellations that make meaningful images.”

Dressler’s photos put the spotlight on Hollywood, Venice Beach, and Downtown LA as a places of extremes. His images highlight the conditions of society that form the existence of his subjects, capturing joyous moments in lives lived at the margins seen alongside images of people whose dashed hopes and broken dreams play out on their grizzled faces. “This discrepancy, he says, “reminds me of my youth in East Germany where the difference between propaganda and reality was similarly large.”

Matthias Harder, director of the Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin, Germany, provided an essay for the book. He points out that Dressler, who lost everything as a young man “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 …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."

Los(t) Angeles: Photographs by Michael Dressel with text by Matthias Harder and an interview with F. Scott Hess, published by Hartmann Books and Gingko Press in German and English, will be on shelves in February.

An exhibition is scheduled for 2022 at the C/E Contemporary Mailand 2021, Schloss Rheinsberg, Helmut Newton Foundation, Berlin.