From the GDR era with its prison for a failed escape attempt to a Hollywood fairytale and an American dream: writer and columnist Jens Pepper writes about the photographer and sound editor Michael Dressel and his photographic journey.
It is a photo almost symptomatic of the great catastrophe that struck Los Angeles. A man of indeterminable age sits slumped in his wheelchair, rolled into the gutter of a busy multi-lane road. His belongings hang in bags on the side. Perhaps he is drunk; the cup on the pavement in front of him suggests that. In any case, he is alone; no one seems to have an eye for him in this dreariness of stone and concrete or to spare a thought for him. Neither do the numerous passing cars stop, nor do any of the few passers-by from the other side of the road come over to see if help is needed. On an electricity pole, a poster advertises Jesus. He, too, has closed his eyes to the misery revealed here.
“He(Michael Dressel) is interested in the whole spectrum of human life, including the beautiful moments and the bizarre. And no matter which of his photographs you see, you never get the feeling that you are dealing with a photographer who takes pleasure in the suffering of others or makes fun of the self-promoters and outsiders.”
Photographer Michael Dressel took this scene during one of his walks through the Californian metropolis. It shows what has been a bitter reality in Los Angeles for years: there are said to be 50,000 homeless people in the city, which in our minds stands above all for the glamour and fame of the film industry, for Hollywood and the Academy Awards. The COVID-pandemic and the economic crisis, coupled with a ruthless hire-and-fire mentality and obscenely high rents, have increased the misery to such an extent that it can no longer be overlooked. In many parts of the city, there is absolutely no trace of the myth of the American Dream.
Unlike many whose dreams and hopes do not find fulfillment in Los Angeles, things went pretty well in the USA for Michael Dressel, who was born in 1958 in the then-still-existing German Democratic Republic (GDR). In 1986, he traveled there for the first time, wanting to see with his own eyes the things and places he had previously only known from films. That was one and a half years after his expatriation from the GDR, where he had served two years in prison for a failed escape from the Republic. By chance, he met film enthusiasts in Los Angeles who were professionally responsible for the sound of film productions. They hit it off right away and Dressel was invited to join their company on a freelance basis and learn the craft of sound editing. It was the beginning of an almost fairytale career, during which he worked for Paramount Studios, 20th Century Fox, Disney, Sony and Warner Bros., among others. His work on films such as Joker, Dunkirk, American Sniper, Interstellar, Titanic and Letters from Iwo Jima was crowned with several Golden Reel Awards and Oscars, which he took home as part of the team, as well as his appointment to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
A few years ago, Dressel decided to gradually withdraw from the film business and increasingly turn to the camera in order to pursue photography more intensively again, which he had never lost sight of since his youth. Instead of sitting in the Sound Studio, he began to explore urban life, at first mainly in his hometown Los Angeles, but later also in Berlin, Paris, Buenos Aires or wherever it takes him; the camera always at hand. And always on foot, close to the people who interest him and whose public life he documents. At first, it was not easy for him to briefly invade the privacy of strangers for a shot. These encounters have the potential for friendly exchange or conflict, he says in an interview with the artist F. Scott Hess, thus describing quite precisely what is important in street photography: direct contact. Because Dressel seeks this, his photos are of a certain quality and not as bland and meaningless as the majority of pictures produced today in this genre, in which people are often only seen from the side, from behind, or not at all. Most photographers fear a possible confrontation, not only with the subjects but also with the law. In Europe, in particular, pointing the camera is more strictly regulated than in the USA. However, it is not impossible to take intense pictures of people in public spaces in these countries either. You have to dare, but it’s not for everyone.
“One senses Dressel’s genuine interest in the people he portrays in the life situations they find themselves in. And so it is not surprising that in the few years since leaving the film business, he has now made it to the top as a street photographer, museum exhibitions included.”
Awe-inspiring in this context is the image of a tattooed man, bare-chested and completely absent-minded, walking directly towards the photographer on a narrow and fenced overpass, dragging a bundle of blade-armed barbed wire behind him, a situation that Dressel could probably only survive unharmed by jumping on the fence after taking the picture. These are images that burn themselves into the memory. However, it would be wrong to say that Dressel focuses only on drama, misery and hardship. He is interested in the whole spectrum of human life, including the beautiful moments and the bizarre. And no matter which of his photographs you see, you never get the feeling that you are dealing with a photographer who takes pleasure in the suffering of others or makes fun of the self-promoters and outsiders. One senses Dressel’s genuine interest in the people he portrays in the life situations they find themselves in. And so it is not surprising that in the few years since leaving the film business, he has now made it to the top as a street photographer, museum exhibitions included. Seen in this light, he is living the American Dream a second time.
The article is translated from German by Johannes Häring.