Born in East Berlin in 1958 Michael Dressel spent his time behind the Iron Curtain painting, photographing and cavorting with fellow dissidents. After trying to escape from the East by climbing the Wall and being caught he was send to prison for two years. Upon completion of  this exercise in character building and more troubles with the authorities, they realized he had become too much of a nuisance and kicked him out of the workers paradise. Two years in West Berlin followed before he was washed up on the shores of Los Angeles were he is still toiling in obscurity.

Everyday Empathy in the Photographs of Michael Dressel

A Conversation with F. Scott Hess

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. Michael Dressel never stopped making visual art, and recently took time to answer a few questions about his new photographs.

FSH: The recent photographs I’ve seen of yours capture people in the moment, going through their daily lives. They are profoundly human and remarkable because their moment seems so fleeting. When you go out do you have a camera constantly before your eye?

MD: Sometimes I say jokingly “I am a camera.” Even without carrying one, I’m constantly scanning my surroundings for constellations that make meaningful images. Jack Delano said, “What impels me to click the shutter is not what things look like, but what they mean.” I feel just that. Cartier-Bresson talks about the “decisive moment.” I’m striving to be ready for that moment and catch it. A whole archive of images, taken seconds after what I tried to capture had passed, proves the difficulty. This kind of photography forces me to be always aware and I see awareness as a key to experiences and joy in life.

FSH: These works strike me as connecting to an earlier era of photography. How do past masters influence you?

MD: The more you work yourself the more you see in, and learn from, the work of others. I admire Edward Steichen, Lartigue and Cartier-Bresson. I keep looking at Crewdson’s, Koudelka’s and Rudi Meisel’s work. Also Nachtwey, whose images are extremely painful and exhilarating but best enjoyed in small doses. One of my favorites is Tazio Secchiaroli. Fellini formed the main character of “La Dolce Vita” after him. His photos from the set of 8½ are some of my favorites ever.

FSH: You are the product of two cultures, Berlin and Hollywood. What do each of these bring to your art?

MD: I spent my formative years in Berlin. German art is what I’m rooted in. Coming to LA at tweny-seven felt like a great liberation, artistically. 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.

FSH: You’ve worked in Hollywood for years as a sound editor, with a list of films to your name that boggles the mind. Is there a connection between your sound work and photography?

MD: LA and Hollywood have been very good to me and I love them for it, warts and all. I got to work with great people on great films, including some of my early heroes like John Schlesinger, the director of “Asphalt Cowboy” and “Day of the Locust.” I’m especially proud of having worked on the last fourteen Clint Eastwood films. Quite a few films I worked on ended up winning Oscars and Golden Reels for the sound work we did on them. Hollywood didn’t just provide me with a good living; it also opened the world of sound for me. I was always visually oriented and never thought I would end up making a living doing sound.

FSH: Some of your previous photographic work was elaborately staged and highly produced, whereas this work is shot in the world ‘as is.’ What provoked the change?

MD: Those staged works can be seen as my last attempts at painting. With the advent of digital photography I realized I could produce images that I didn’t have the technical skills to do as paintings. Things changed once I realized how hard it is to shoot meaningful images of people in the real world. I used to feel inhibited to photograph people. It was hard to overcome this and develop an attitude that made possible the short but intimate encounter with strangers when photographing them. This challenge attracts me greatly because it goes way beyond photography. Every such encounter has the potential for friendly exchange or conflict. It is a fine line that requires tact and sensitivity toward the situation and the person. One learns a lot about oneself and others that way. Those images cannot be produced, only captured and you have to be there and be ready when the moment comes. I don’t know who said it but I agree with the quote “What a good photographer needs more than a good camera is a good pair of shoes.”

FSH: Do you think many contemporary photographers avoid empathy for aesthetic or stylistic purposes? Is there a downside to work connecting too well to other human beings?

MD: I think many aspiring and established artists are under pressure to produce work that is conforming to the art market in order to make a living. The market wants “New” and this kind of work has an old- fashioned feel. Another problem is that this kind of work isn’t easily produced. It is easier to come up with some conceptual gimmick that doesn’t require skills and isn’t as time-consuming.

FSH: These images point to your great empathy towards your fellow humans, but also a wicked joy you take in pointing out their flaws or weaknesses. Is this an accurate reading?

MD: I always loved that Fellini could describe people in the most unflattering way without being condescending. It seemed he was laughing with us because deep down he knew he was as much a tragic joke as the rest of us. I wish to be like that. I do not have preconceived ideas about what I want to express. I am not religious or “spiritual.” I could never even figure out what that is supposed to mean. 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.

F. Scott Hess,
Artist and Associate Professor at Laguna College of Art + Design 

Out for Drinks with Michael Dressel

by John Tottenham

It would be a triumph if one could write an essay about street photography without resorting to the words ‘dignity’ and ‘compassion,’ which seem to be de rigueur whenever the subject is addressed. And Michael Dressel is definitely a street photographer. For years he has been tirelessly traversing the streets of his adopted city of Los Angeles—among other cities—documenting high and low, mostly the latter.

Passionately cynical and possessed with a spirited world-weariness, Dressel sits in a bar that is slowly filling up with the evening crowd. “I’m not weirdly compassionate or anything,” he says, speaking perfect English in a German accent. “It isn’t about compassion. The bottom line is that we’re all struggling through this somehow. We’re all staggering through the merciless coldness of the universe. We have homes, bank accounts and jobs, but it’s a thin protection. We’re all going to die.”

Dressel frequently dispenses morbid quips that evince a healthy awareness of mortality and acceptance of fate: a sensibility shaped by his formative years in East Germany – of hitchhiking trips undertaken in the bleakest of winters (a far cry from the beat odysseys that inspired them) and two years spent in an East German prison for attempting to climb the Berlin wall.
It was following this character-building stretch of hard time that he moved to Los Angeles, in the mid-1980s, and found employment as a sound editor. “When I was involved in Hollywood,” he says, “people always tried to get me to go to parties attended by big shots. I’d rather talk to the janitor. Names: I don’t care about names. These are not interesting people.”

From a large portfolio he pulls out a photograph of a hard-eyed woman in a wheelchair. Her eyes are hard to look into; they have seen things you never want to see and ruthlessly return the viewer’s gaze. The woman seems to be challenging the photographer, sizing him up, questioning his motives, perhaps wondering what’s in it for her. Engagement with the subject is visible, and so powerful is her expression that it took several views before I noticed the painted image of a benign Dr. Martin Luther King adorning the store shutters that serve as a backdrop. Dressel’s work often exhibits a sensitivity to the visual ironies and serendipitous ambiguities of signage and advertising.

“The greatest mystery of all is reality,” says Michael, quoting Max Beckmann’s maxim. “Not everything has been photographed by everybody yet,” he adds, quoting one of his own.

Cocktails were flowing and young people were swarming around us until we became a graying island in a sea of blooming youth.

I continued leafing through the portfolio. A photograph of a woman with a walking cane, broken in health and weighed down with care, warily eyeing an approaching cop, weighed down with weaponry, starkly attests to powerlessness in the face of injustice, while a photograph of three sweet and hopeful young mothers wheeling baby carriages past the entrance to a strip joint in the soft and forgiving evening light distinctive to Los Angeles contains an irresistible poignancy. It feels like the end here, both sanctuary and termination: a soft place of harsh realities where a sun that once meant something barely brushes against the world. Dressel zeroes in on the pitiless underside of this beguiling and illusory softness, capturing lives of quiet desperation and loud complacency from the well-heeled to the down at heel, the self-obsessed to the dispossessed.

“You’ve got to walk around a lot,” he says. “The more you walk, the more you see; you wander and wait, sometimes you stop. I like eye contact, a natural situation where it’s acknowledged that we saw each other, that’s important.”

These moments of connection are strikingly evident in the gritty musicality of Dressel’s portraits of mariachi performers clowning around and carnival revelers twerking for the camera at street festivals. Amidst all this movement, some of Dressel’s most arresting images capture moments of stillness in the city. Slumped in despondency at a table outside a Berlin bar, a solitary drinker stares down at the table while clinging to the cheap consolation of beer and tobacco. Back in LA, a dog stands guard in the window of a timeless rooming house, in which twisted curtains, an old air conditioner, a broken wrought iron railing and a ‘For Rent’ sign are visible.

“There aren’t many places like that left,” I remark.

“Wherever I go I end up photographing similar things, a society in dissolution,” says Michael. “The more I’m around the less I understand. You have to decide if you’re going to use that as a form of liberation or a reason to despair… all this running-around-all-day stuff is lame. One has to endure the boredom of existence in order to figure out what it’s all about.”

Not that almost everything doesn’t have that effect but listening to Dressel often makes me feel I haven’t lived fully enough or thought deeply enough about things; he possesses a refreshing and enviable engagement with life and his conversation is an unpredictable and inspiring ride. At first I keep up, but my flagging energy and meager fund of discourse is soon exhausted, and as the evening wears down I fall into the role of a mumbling, overstimulated listener and just enjoy the flow of his eloquence. My ear has been twisted off but it has been a worthwhile ear-twisting—which can’t be said about most dithyramblers—and I have been left with something to think about.

I stared balefully at the insipid beauties and arrogant young upstarts who were responsible for the frequent eruptions of squealing, giggling and yelling on the other side of the room, with constant brain-curdling ejaculations of “cools,” likes” “awesomes” and “Oh my Gods.”
“The world is too full,” said Michael. “But we’re making room soon… It’s coming for us, we’re in the crosshairs, we’re in direct range.” If a friend, as I have sometimes thought, is somebody one can talk about death with, then Michael is a true friend.

“The problem nowadays is there’s too much of everything. Too much intelligence, too much beauty, too much art,” he continued. “But as full as the world is, even if you only do one thing, that one thing should be really good. To leave a record of how you saw things, your personal view. There’s some validity to that: people do see things differently.”
Over the course of his life, Dressel has seen things differently, and he has mastered several mediums. As a younger man, he produced a substantial body of work as a painter in a style that embodied a direct line of descent from German Expressionism and was equal to anything that was around at the time. But he didn’t put it out there. His sense of urgency about producing the work itself has never been matched by a corresponding desire to display the results of his endeavors, until now.

“The curtains are coming down anyway pretty soon,” he says. “I might as well put it out there.”