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Who is Michael Jang?

Self-portrait, Financial District, San Francisco, 1973. © Michael Jang.

He spent 40 years documenting the street life and subcultures of the Bay Area, but kept his work hidden. Discovered by SFMoMA in 2001, Michael Jang’s vast archive now forms a new book and his first major retrospective, giving a rare insight into his wayward career

This article was published in issue #7888 of British Journal of Photography. Visit the BJP Shop to purchase the magazine here.

In San Francisco, a city of nearly 900,000 people, the six degrees of separation adage routinely seems to hold true. In the case of photographer Michael Jang, I find there are a number of connections. I attended elementary school with his daughter, and high school with his son. My master’s dissertation examined the distinctive environment at the California Institute of the Arts during the early 1970s, which was the same time Jang was studying at the Art Institute.

I also attended the opening of his first exhibition in 2013, an atypical gathering of young skateboarders and graffiti artists, art world colleagues, and his family members, several of whom I recognised (though 40 years had passed) from the photographs on the gallery’s walls. However, despite all these connections, and even conversations with the artist, I know very little about him. So it’s apposite that his forthcoming retrospective monograph is titled Who is Michael Jang?.

When you walk into Jang’s home, you encounter a staircase on the left, a hallway straight ahead, and on the right, the first of two giant rooms devoted to his studio. “You give up a living room and a dining room, but better that than having to rent a separate space,” he jokes. The floor of one room is almost entirely covered by a stack of billboard-sized prints from Summer Weather [below], portraits of contestants auditioning to present the weather report for a San Francisco television station. He steps on them as I slowly follow behind, before we sit at a long refectory table as music plays from a nearby TV.

“I threw away more than half my stuff. I trashed it because I didn’t believe in it”

From the series Summer Weather, 1983. © Michael Jang

Although the vast majority of Jang’s ‘fine art’ photographs were made during the 1970s and 1980s, they went largely unseen until 2001, when he fortuitously heard that anyone could submit prints for consideration to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

“I pulled together some work from The Jangs and Beverly Hilton,” he explains. “I was 50 at the time, and I knew rejection wouldn’t hurt like it would have when I was 20 or 30. By then, I was so far away from that work.” Instead of rejection, he was asked to come in for a meeting. Jang met with four curators, including Sandra Phillips, now curator emerita of photography, who has become one of his biggest advocates.

“They asked me, ‘Where have you been?’ And I answered honestly that I just took the pictures in school and then forgot about them for 40 years while I got on with my life.” In the intervening years, Jang worked as a successful commercial photographer, shooting everything from family portraits to magazine covers with celebrities, and focused on raising his children. “I explained to them that I never thought my pictures were any good,” he laughs.

So when he applied to study at CalArts, did he have photography in mind, I ask him? “Actually, my first photo class ever was at CalArts, and Beverly Hilton was my very first project,” he says. “We were mostly looking at big, gorgeous prints by Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and other f/64 photographers. I figured I would be lugging around a large format camera too. Then my teacher Ben Lifson happened to show some slides of Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand from the 1967 exhibition New Documents at MoMA, which were radically different. And I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do.’” So Jang headed out on the streets of Los Angeles with a borrowed Leica in hand.

From the series Beverly Hilton, 1973. © Michael Jang

While out shooting one evening, the young artist stumbled upon David Bowie, surrounded by fans in front of the Beverly Hilton Hotel. He quickly snapped a picture. As Jang meandered through the crowd, one fan stopped him and told him that every Saturday night there was a major event at the Hilton, with a list of the upcoming ones posted in the lobby. “And in my head, I think, ‘I’ve got a project here for the next semester’,” says Jang.

Beverly Hilton is an example of the fledgling photographer’s fearless determination: he even created fake press passes to gain entry to the hotel’s exclusive events. “The paparazzi used to call me ‘the kid’. Sometimes they’d call the police and tell them I wasn’t legitimate. But I figured I was a college kid, so what was the worst they could do to me?”

Jang managed to photograph a number of celebrity icons: Jack Lemmon, Bea Arthur, Lawrence Welk, and even Frank Sinatra, the singer coyly grinning with Ronald Reagan and Milton Berle behind him. Other subjects are unnamed partygoers, striking not for their stardom but rather for Jang’s mastery in framing and presenting the scenes before us.

Moving quickly through his environment, he clearly considers all elements within the picture’s frame before clicking the shutter. In one image [below], he catches two men, cigarettes held identically, while one date picks at her teeth and the other, barely visible at the photograph’s edge, mysteriously draws her hand to her lips. I am reminded of Winogrand’s work from the Centennial Ball at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1969.

From the series Beverly Hilton, 1973. © Michael Jang

Tod Papageorge’s keen observation about those pictures could just as easily be said of Jang: “What he has given us is a unilateral report of how we behaved under pressure during a time of costumes and causes, and of how extravagantly, outrageously, and continuously we displayed what we wanted.”

In the summer of 1972, Jang headed north for a summer class with Lisette Model at the University of California Berkeley Extension. “I thought I was going to do street photography, but I would often go hours without seeing something worth shooting,” he remembers. Instead, he decided to focus on the relatives he was staying with, just outside of the city. “I’d done the thing where you go in, get the shot, and leave. This time, I went in deep. The difference is, when I look back at the work, you see that they are not guarded. You have to live with people to get those kinds of shots.”

Jang followed family members throughout the day, at home, and during outings, his camera and flash at the ready, often right in their faces. Through the unique and yet universally relatable experience of his Chinese-American family, he documents the birth of suburbia. Whether it’s Aunt Lucy meticulously watering her garden at night, or the family all together
in the living room [below], each absorbed in their own world (including the dog), sensitivity and humour permeate each subtly framed picture, reminding us of our own family pictures while transcending the snapshots in our own albums.

Living room scene, from the series The Jangs, 1973. © Michael Jang

Jang entered straight into graduate school at the San Francisco Art Institute after finishing at CalArts. “I needed a couple of years to figure out what I was doing and I also thought I wanted to be a teacher,” he explains. Like his fascination with the Beverly Hilton in LA, Jang soon discovered his newest subject: San Francisco’s emerging punk scene.

“I wasn’t part of the scene, but I used my camera to get in. And I wasn’t so much into the big names; I was into the energy.” Documenting everything from impromptu gigs at school (“they would have concerts in a painting classroom, protecting the paintings on the walls with black plastic”) to more well-known groups such as the Ramones and Sex Pistols, his photographs not only bear witness to the music, but also the punk movement’s distinctive atmosphere and culture.

In short, Jang was incredibly prolific at CalArts and SFAI, although his upcoming exhibition and publication will only be a small slice of what he shot during that time. Jang’s eyes well up as he quietly says, “I threw away more than half my stuff. I trashed it because I didn’t believe in it. I only kept about 250 rolls. And look at what I have. Compare that to the reported estimates of the archives of Vivian Maier – 100,000 negatives and slides; and Winogrand – over a million negatives and 10,000 rolls of undeveloped film.”

He pauses to wipe his face. “It’s just been hard this last year. As Sandy [Sandra Phillips] has been going through my work it’s made me realise how much more this all could have been. At times, I have an overwhelming sense of regret, but I am thankful that I have what I have. With the book and Sandy basically doing a retrospective… it’s enough.”

Ramones free concert, Civic Center Plaza, 1979. © Michael Jang.

Michael Jang’s California – the photographer’s first major solo exhibition, curated by Phillips – opened at the end of September at San Francisco’s McEvoy Foundation for the Arts. The first works visitors will see are not Jang’s, but a selection of prints by Arbus, Friedlander and Winogrand.

“Sandy and I decided it should start with a version of New Documents using works from the McEvoy Family Collection; this sets the tone for the rest of the show.” The second and largest room will be devoted to prints Jang made in school, suggesting the ways his work continues within the New Documents lineage. Larger contemporary prints will occupy the space that follows. And then, in the final room, “all hell is going to break loose,” Jang says with a grin. “It’s going to be absolutely modern, using wheat paste, graffiti, Instagram. That area will look like nothing else. The exhibition as a whole will trace 40 years of the way images have been presented.”

Launching concurrently with the exhibition is a monograph published by Pascale Georgiev and Kingston Trinder of Atelier Éditions, collaborators Jang has worked with on several zines in the past. Who Is Michael Jang? is a cleverly and thoughtfully sequenced tome that plays with scale and smart image pairings to vary the rhythm as you move through the six sections of plates, spanning 1972 to 1987. It sets itself apart from the majority of retrospective monographs; pictures are favoured over text (there are only two short essays in addition to modest paragraphs that introduce each section). By focusing our attention on the work, Who is Michael Jang? offers us the best vehicle for learning about the artist; the photographs say it all.

Surreptitiously tucked in a pocket on the back inside cover of the book is a small paperback, the angelic face of a teenager with a big Band-Aid pasted across his forehead peeking out. Like Jang’s zines, the saddle-stitched insert is playfully laid out, layering images and bold swaths of colour. Unlike the preceding pictures, these photographs are made much later, from 2001, and in colour.

From the series Garage Band, 2001. © Michael Jang

Once again, Jang gained access to a scene of which he was definitely not a part: the underground high-school music scene in the Bay Area. Trailing his adolescent daughter, Jang captured the aspiring rockers not only mid- practice and performance, but also during the in-between moments. In one striking spread [above], a boy forcefully strums his electric guitar, his head pulled back, mouth open and eyes closed. A girl seated on the ground looks up at him adoringly, hands clasped across her chest. Though the scene is contemporary, the dynamic captured – his wholehearted investment in the music and her admiration – feels timeless.

On the opposite page, five shirtless teenage boys pose in front of a white wall. Though they gaze with confidence directly into the camera’s lens, their young bodies, and the requisite self-consciousness that accompanies this age, belie their ‘hardcore’ message. Jang simultaneously captures a moment within a certain era, while revealing the perpetuity of shared human experiences.

Although some of this work has been seen in the past, much of it is being revealed for the first time in the exhibition and monograph. For an artist who has spent much of his life flying under the radar, this moment of recognition has Jang wondering what people will think of the work. “I don’t know how the photographs will be received. They are decades past their ‘sell-by’ date.” We both laugh. “We will see what kind of shelf-life they have. Maybe they’ll be like Twinkies and will last forever.”

Michael Jang’s California is on show at the McEvoy Foundation for the Arts, San Francisco until 18 January. Who is Michael Jang? is published by Atelier Éditions

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