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Photography A walk on the wild side

JOHN GREEN recommends a book that presents us with the reverse side of the Oscars and Tinsel Town glitter

Los(t) Angeles: A Portrait Journey through LA’s Urban Jungle
Photos by Michael Dressell, Text by Mathhias Harder
Co-published by Hartmann Books and Gingko Press, £32.39

HOLLYWOOD, the US film industry’s headquarters is based in Los Angeles, and it is what has given this otherwise un-noteworthy city its global cachet.

It has always been a treacherous, bright-light trap for those many would-be-star moths desperate to find their salvation in the spotlight.

The annual Oscar jamborees, held in LA, have become a worldwide symbol of regal splendour and extravagance, a fashion parade for the big haute couture brands, offering us a peek into the world of celebrity.

This year’s event, where the actor Will Smith slapped the comedian Chris Rock on stage, made headlines throughout the world and emphatically underlined the event’s essential vacuous banality.

But such triviality should not hide the fact that Hollywood, and the films it churns out, is the most effective propaganda centre for the US and its capitalist culture.

Its output has had deep ideological and cultural repercussions throughout the world and it is largely responsible for shoring up US cultural hegemony.

The East German-born photographer Michael Dressel here presents us with the reverse side of the Oscars and Tinsel Town glitter, far from the bright lights, the high fashion and the glamour.

Los Angeles has become his adoptive home and with his camera he reveals for us a side of the city most choose to ignore.

His images, taken between 2014 and 2020, form a collection of black-and-white images that have classic street photography elements, but manage to penetrate deeper, into the complexity of the human condition.

He was drawn to people who had arrived in Los Angeles seeking fame and fortune but ended up being ground down by the city.

These days in the US, hardly any photographer dares to take pictures in the tradition of classic street photography without consulting a lawyer. Time and again, however, Dressel still does.

He uses his camera to take aim at people on the streets of Los Angeles. They know they are being photographed. Each portrait and each scene reveals much about their fate and about the city they live in.

But the photographs also say something about the photographer himself who documents his city’s inhabitants with an unforgiving, yet empathetic gaze.

His black-and-white images manage to underline a deeper reality of the city, where everyone dreams of making it big, yet only very few succeed.

Capitalism succeeds ideologically because it appears to offer everyone the dream of wealth and fame, hiding the fact that the system can only ever allow a handful to realise their dreams.

For most of the people in Dressel’s photographs making it big remains elusive.

Born in East Berlin in 1958, Michael Dressel briefly studied set design at the Berlin-Weissensee Academy of Art. He spent two formative years in GDR prisons following a failed attempt to leave the country illegally.

After being deported to the West, he briefly lived in West Berlin before moving to Los Angeles in 1985, where he has been living ever since. There, he works as a sound editor.

While it is his profession to listen with an attentive ear, using a camera and his eyes is his true passion.

For many years, he has been roaming the streets with his cameras, always on the look out for “significant moments.”

For the first time, Los(t) Angeles shows a selection of photographs that originated in numerous treks through the streets of the city.

The harsh tonal contrasts and exquisite detail in his shots have an almost surreal quality about them, as if frozen in time, engraved in stone: an older, mixed-race woman stands on the pavement and looks forlornly at the camera, behind her a large, tatty hoarding proclaiming: “Women Power Women.”

That simple contrast between words of exhortation and hope, compared with the reality of disappointment and broken dreams is what makes such an images so powerful.

Another is of a young man, with a beautiful and evocative face, leaning for support against a metal street sign, staring into the distance with resigned desperation.

He is a modern Christ-like figure, vainly holding onto this urban crucifix, to face the humiliations and hardship still to come.

At a time in history when the US, and much of the world, is facing serious “social tipping points” these photographs provide an honest and sincere reflection of humanity and possibility.

Dressell’s images are of people who are far removed from the glamorous and beautiful stars we see on screen.

We can imagine how they once came in hope to this Eden which turns into a mockery of paradise.

The dualism of rich and poor, beautiful and ugly, old and young, healthy and sick exists in all big cities, but in Los Angeles these extremes seem to be particularly crass.

In his text, Harder notes that “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.

“Dressel sees people, sees individual stories, sees the nuance, and the images reflect a sense of honouring the pain, loss, achievements and quirks of human behaviour he discovers.”

Dressell has an acute eye for the incongruous and startling, the revelatory among the mundane and tragic alongside the hilarious.

They are memorable images. You can see they are not random snapshots but meticulously composed, even if fleeting, moments of daily life on the streets.

He has said, jokingly: “I am a camera. Even without carrying one I’m constantly scanning my surroundings for constellations that make meaningful images.”

Jack Delano — the US-Puerto Rican photographer for the Farm Security Administration — said: “What impels me to click the shutter is not what things look like, but what they mean.”

“I feel just that,” says Dressell, adding: “Henri Cartier-Bresson talks about the ‘decisive moment.’ I’m striving to be ready for that moment and catch it. This kind of photography forces me to be always aware, and I see awareness as a key to experiences and joy in life.”

This is a photography book that provides a visual commentary on a crassly unequal society, revealing unrealised dreams and expressed with an artist’s imagination, keen eye and profound human empathy.

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