Michael Jang, Who is Michael Jang?

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by Atelier Éditions (here) to coincide with the exhibition Michael Jang’s California at the McEvoy Foundation for the Arts in San Francisco (September 27-January 18, 2020, here). Hardcover, 280 pages, with sewn insert in back, 198 black-and-white and 25 color photographic reproductions, 9 ½ x 11 ¾ in. Includes a foreword by Erik Kessels, and an introduction and notes by Sandra S. Phillips. $65. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: As a title, “Who is Michael Jang?”, is a cheeky rhetorical gambit. A provocation and a tease, it’s a shy admission that most of us picking up this book will not have heard of the author. At the same time, it’s a rather aggressive ploy. No allusive or summarizing description of the photographs herein for him. No, it’s his name, in the raw, that he leads with and has chosen to be his brand.

As self-marketing, it’s surprisingly effective—and honest. After seeing his pictures for the first time, in particular ones from his childhood, you aren’t likely to mistake them for anyone else’s. This previously unknown character named Michael Jang seems to be a true-blooded American as well as a man apart.

Take the cover, for example. A self-portrait from 1973, it shows a young Asian male standing on the corner of a downtown urban U.S. street among a gaggle of ethnically diverse strangers whose styles of clothes and hair are recognizably from the period. He is himself conservatively dressed, in coat-and-tie under a dark raincoat, but turned toward the camera at an angle, as if to highlight his watchful difference. It’s hard to get a read on who Jang is behind his sunglasses, or who he aspires to be. The question mark in the title is therefore factual and almost confessional: he was a young man figuring himself out, and perhaps still is.

The street sign behind this street-corner ensemble reads “California,” a geographical-sociological axis around which the seven bodies of work in the book revolve. Jang’s grandparents came from China to the West Coast in the late 19th century; his parents were raised in San Francisco’s Chinatown. He himself, though, is a product of the prosperous boomer years in the Golden Bear state. Born in 1951, he grew up in the former gold rush city of Marysville, about 40 miles north of Sacramento.

The book’s first chapter, “The Jangs,” chronicles what appears to be a large, vibrant, happy family life in which everyone (mother and father, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters) has smoothly assimilated into the bliss of post-war American life. There are no abrasive ethnic tensions visible in these snapshots. His upbringing seems more The Royal Tenenbaums than The Year of the Dragon (the groundbreaking play from the ’70s by Frank Chin about racism toward Chinese-Americans.) It’s a world of eccentric relatives and middle-class comforts, of Archie comics, thick-piled carpeting, toy Winchester rifles, modernist furniture, ski equipment, stationary bicycles, violin lessons, misbehaving household pets, rock ‘n’ roll and, of course, television.

It was through the small screen that Jang probably absorbed his fascination with celebrities. Televised sports provided him with his first heroes. When he was 10 he took a photograph at Candlestick Park of Willie Mays, outfielder for the San Francisco Giants and arguably the greatest baseball player of the 1950s. Jang has caught the moment when Mays was walking toward the clubhouse. He has spotted a boy with a camera (or was shouted at by him) and turned to flash a smile. In another early photograph, a two-page spread in the book, long-haired Michael in a Snoopy t-shirt sits unsmiling in his bedroom, the walls of which are papered floor-to-ceiling with posters of his two favorite NFL teams, the Baltimore Colts and Los Angeles Rams.

Jang entered the California Institute of the Arts in 1971 when, with teachers John Baldessari, Judy Chicago, Nam June Paik, and Allen Kaprow, the school was probably the most avant-garde place to study art in the country. Originally a design student, the freshman was turned on to photography after taking a class with Ben Lifson, later an influential critic at the Village Voice. Lifson’s teachings, and Jang’s own earlier experiments with the hand-held camera, led him to begin making crowded, jarringly off-kilter frames in the style of East Coast photographers Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Larry Fink, and Joel Meyerowitz.

The section of the book titled “College” (1972-73) shows Jang feeling his way toward his own vision of America. Roughly the same age of everyone he was photographing, and just as aimless, he wryly captures the grunginess of young people with no clear responsibilities except the burdensome dictate to explore boundaries and have a good time. These were years when students scotch-taped Mao posters to their dorm room walls and wore Mao caps without irony. Your friend’s dad might drink or smoke pot with you. Your classmates stood behind tables and signed up voters for McGovern’s doomed presidential run. Most of all, everyone wanted to party—in ape costumes, campy outfits, or wearing nothing at all.

Although these pictures differ generationally from those in “Beverly Hilton,” done about the same time, they are similar in their spastic angularity. For a class assignment, Jang fabricated a press pass and infiltrated the ballrooms at this swanky L.A. landmark, where he photographed (again with flash) celebrities stepping out of limos and revelers boogying on the dance floor. His cast of famous characters—many of them past their prime as adored icons—includes Jimmy Stewart, Rudy Vallee, Lawrence Welk, Audrey Meadows, Jack Benny, Peggy Lee, Jack Lemmon, and the trio of Frank Sinatra, Ronald Reagan, and Milton Berle yukking it up on the dais. David Bowie, whose shape-shifting had long made him Jang’s hero, is the only notable close to his age. The rock star wears a plaid jacket and a feathery quiff, signing autographs during his “Ziggy Stardust” phase.

The music scene in San Francisco, as it evolved from rock to punk, is another theme in the book. Friendship with Bill Graham, proprietor of the Fillmore West, allowed Jang back-stage access. Equally at home in smaller clubs, he captures the mayhem in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s—on stage and in front of it—as bands such as the Mutants, Pearl Harbor and the Explosions, and the Sex Pistols pranced, screamed, swan-dived into the crowd, and shook the rafters, tapping into a primal energy that Jang tries to emulate in his candid shots. A final section titled “Garage Band,” dated post-2001 and collected in a separate insert, features the only color shots Jang has selected. His subjects are kids the same age as his teenage daughter. As he photographs them rehearsing, hanging out, eating unhealthy food, and marking their territory by taking photographs, they seem aware they aren’t the first hellions to be disgusted with the status quo and make noise with electric guitars. This hasn’t stopped them from searching for a way to make original music about their own urges and anger, however, an attitude that Jang respects.

The anomalies here are the portraits he made in 1983 of people auditioning to be TV weather broadcasters. The images are rigidly professional in the slick, immaculate manner of a commercial photographer, which Jang himself has been for several decades. Only the context of the zany bodies of elsewhere work, and the unnatural attention he gives to hair styling and eyeglasses and winning smiles, suggests these pictures are the work of someone who isn’t trying to sell us on the appeal of these faces for American TV but instead wants to undermine its ideals. Wholesomeness and freakishness are virtually indistinguishable in his camera’s eye.

The 40 years of photographs in Michael Jang’s archive were entirely unknown until 2001 when he submitted a sample to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and received an enthusiastic response from curator Sandra S. Phillips and her assistant Douglas Nickel. Collectors and curators may find his oeuvre too derivative of the “snapshot aesthetic” that prevailed in the ‘70s. The charge isn’t wrong, just irrelevant. No one else saw the messy tumult of the Cold War years from Jang’s vantage. His bemused attitude toward his family and his upbringing in California is, so far as I know, unique in the annals of American art. Even if who he is remains an unanswered question, I can appreciate his idiosyncratic scope and what he helps us to remember. “Why Aren’t There any Famous Asian-American Photographers?” asked a headline in a 2017 Aperture article. Perhaps this exhibition and book will make him the first.

Collector’s POV: Michael Jang does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely connect directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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