THE HIDDEN ARTIST: Dietmar Kohl
CONNECTION TO NOHO: Long time artist and resident who enjoys tea and pie at Republic of Pie
MEDIUMS: Photography and fashion design
European transplants, especially artistic ones, have always interested me, both in Chicago where I’m from and in Los Angeles where I’ve resided for over twenty-five years. In my opinion, there’s something quite different about them—some kind of class or style that most Americans don’t have. Of course, they’ve always been opinionated about almost anything American, but for me it was a refreshingly different perspective on what many Americans, including myself, often dismissed or took for granted. But nothing prepared me for what I would learn during my interview with Dietmar Kohl.
I'd been slowly meeting Dietmar on Facebook. What attracted me to him were his photography posts of downtown Los Angeles. The guy definitely had an "eye" for content as well as composition, but more importantly, he possessed the rare gift of being able to get close to his subject matter. So, I made an appointment with him on one of those now seasonably hot Los Angeles October afternoons at The Republic of Pie on Magnolia. We sat on a truly spring less couch in the back of the restaurant—you know, the kind you can't get out of because your butt has landed closer to the floor than you expected. At first, Dietmar was a bit shy with me and spoke quietly. He wore a black ball cap he'd studded with skull and nailheads that he wanted me to see and told me he'd been designing hats like it, as well as leather jackets, for a store on Melrose Ave. And then we talked about his photography.
Dietmar is originally from Vienna, Austria. He came to the U.S. during the early 90s with a resume and portfolio full of fashion and graphic experience, then married the woman of his dreams. But misfortune struck. His wife later died of a rare lung disease and Dietmar was struck by a car, which disabled him for a period of time. Slowly, he has been recreating his life and getting back to fashion, but he is always photographing—everything, everywhere, and anybody, especially those who many Angeleno's choose to ignore—our homeless residents of the streets, viaducts, abandoned buildings, and bridges.
Turns out Dietmar has been not only photographing the homeless since the 90s, but he's been getting right next to them too—so close in fact that he can fully empathize with their plight, know a little of their histories, and enable them to trust him. Now, who does that? All we do is hurriedly flip coins in their direction or complain they are eyesores in the light of the gentrification happening around us—and that's spreading like a bad rash. But did you know mental institutions deliver mentally ill patients to the streets in vanloads because they can't care for them anymore? Did you know that although many of us got through the economy downturn in 2009 that the repercussions of all those jobs lost, the houses taken away, and even the economy's present revival (which has become quiet evident with the insane rental increases and new construction) have those people still kicked to the curb?
Did we ever consider that the "filthy miserable lechs" laying on skid row in downtown Los Angeles are there because they've been treated as nothing more than subhumans, offered no place to sleep, let alone a decent place to clean themselves in other than a cold concrete institutionalized shower room? Dietmar told me these things because he's been close enough to see them in these horrid circumstances. And after awhile—after he can actually call these people by their names given to them at birth, he photographs them.
I think there are many reasons to write about Dietmar today. He is wonderfully talented and deserves recognition for all his work. I mean, the man isn't even from America and he has more soul for the human race than any American I know. It is my hope that Dietmar's photographs will get into everyone's faces, especially these iconic and sad documentaries of our brothers and sisters. I pray they will be used to bring more awareness and fundraising to give these poor people back their dignity by giving them a place to rest and clean their bodies. Dietmar said we all live in a ghetto and it's so damn true. All we have to do is open our eyes and see it all around us. But we have to do more. We have to get so close we can touch them—like Dietmar Kohl has.