When Michael Dressel sets out into the crowded streets of Hollywood, he’s not scouting for talent — he’s on the lookout for those small, rich moments of visual theater in the drama of the every day.
The results of his recent perambulations are on view in more than 60 black-and-white photographs in the Garden of the Zodiac Gallery’s exhibition Michael Dressel: A Wondering Eye, which runs through March 31.
With the introduction of the 35mm camera in the 1930s, portable photography has since made possible everything from the candid portrait to the selfie. It allowed for the instantaneous, for views and visages captured in the blink of an eye — a phenomenon we rarely consider some 80 years on.
This revolution gave rise to “street photography,” to camera-wielding artists capturing public events and unguarded moments in the life of cities and neighborhoods. When photographer met happenstance, picture making could result in images of great beauty, descriptive narrative and humanity.
This invention gave rise to photojournalism on the plus side and the paparazzi on the down. Photography soon became accessible to all, professionals and amateurs alike, and its legacy resides in YouTube, Snapchat and any other visual media platform you care to mention.
Though the technologies have changed, Dressel’s eye as a street photographer often has the feel for the classics. It should be said that part of the vintage quality is due to his black-and-white expression — a necessity then, a choice now. Though the attire, hairstyles, cell phones and streetscapes give away details on era and place, there is a certain sense of timelessness due to being rendered in monochrome.
This seems especially true for those images shot in Europe, where the more historic backdrops lend a certain distance. An image taken in a museum of an elderly woman passing by an ancient statue provides an essay in realism versus idealism. A pair on a sunny park bench beneath a beautifully lit canopy of trees delivers a romantic French postcard.
And of course no good photographer ignores the moment when light and shade create perfect patterns on the pavement. Dressel’s bird’s-eye-view Boston photograph of a web of bicycle shadows, with a person passing by precisely at the right time, is essentially the visual definition of Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” of picture taking.
Yet, the above are the type of photographs that should be in any decent street photographer’s portfolio. It’s in Los Angeles, Dressel’s main arena of action, that his work finds his voice. He has worked as an acclaimed sound editor in the film industry for years, so this is his urban milieu.
Under Dressel’s gaze, LA and especially Hollywood are a perpetual carnival, a visual street theater 24/7. All the characters across the spectrum of humanity are there — the rich and poor, tourists and denizens, saints and sinners. Their paths continually cross, and Dressel encounters them with an eye for what is mesmerizing, ironic, paradoxical, or serio-comic in their conjunctions.
The first photograph in the exhibition neatly encapsulates it all. It is shot on a Hollywood Boulevard sidewalk, identifiable by the Walk of Fame stars in the pavement and building sign in the background. In the foreground is an African-American man wearing a smart pin-striped, double-breasted jacket; a closer look reveals that he is layered in clothing on what appears to be a warm day, judging by others on the street. This coupled with his body language — downcast and drawn inward, either avoiding or unaware of the photographer’s lens — tells the viewer that times are hard for this gentleman.
It is the action in the middle ground of this photograph, however, that adds a kind of chilling surrealism to the gritty urban portrait provided by this passerby. There, two costumed individuals appear, one in an Elmo suit and the other in a Spiderman outfit. They are working stiffs — shilling for meager tourist selfie dollars. Although there is nothing truly legible about their gaze, it seems as if they are meting out some sort of mocking judgment of the photographer, the pedestrian, or both.
If Dressel is to be believed, Hollywood Boulevard exists in this perpetual state of cosplay. The exhibition is deep with images of Batman, Catwoman and Darth Vader impersonators, hustling their trade day and night. In their sheer numbers and attitudes, there is something creepy rather than joyous about their fantasy role play. Similarly, Dressel seems to reveal something of desperation in other pedestrians — people clinging hard to an impossible, glamorous ideal.
One of the biggest paradoxes in La-La Land is its tremendous population of urban homeless, sick and mentally ill — those for whom the social safety net has too many holes. While Dressel does not set out to create a kind of poverty porn with his images, it is hard for him to avoid capturing the cruel and cynical ironies he sees in the clash of great luxury and extreme hardship.
He tries to settle on the face of humanity. Many are direct portraits of those willing to address the camera; several are displayed as 4 x 6’ prints. As well, his photograph of a homeless fortress, whose resident lays invisibly within a sea of discarded mannequins and skeletons, is especially eloquent.
The LA photographs also confirm Dressel’s choice of black and white. Imagine these in color — the sheer noise of all that additional information would take away from the emphasis on the dynamics of the scenes, the poses, the contract made between photographer and subject. Dressel has said that a friend opined that color in his work would be “too chatty,” which seems an apt description.
For those of us who live in an urban environment that little resembles Dressel’s portrayals, these photographs provide curious, even voyeuristic views of the everyday exotic. But don’t kid yourself that this world isn’t close at hand. Cue The Band, which said it best: “Life is a carnival, take another look.”
The Garden of the Zodiac Gallery’s Michael Dressel: A Wondering Eyeis on view through March 31. The gallery, at 1042 Howard Street in the Old Market Passageway, is open Tuesday-Saturday from noon-8 p.m. and Sunday from noon-6 p.m.