Michael Jang Takes the Best Pictures Alec Soth Has Ever Seen

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Planet of the Apes beauty contest, Century City, 1973© Photographs by Michael Jang

San Francisco-based photographer Michael Jang would sneak into glamorous California parties to take pictures as a student in the 1970s. A new book looks back at Jang’s extraordinary photographic archive

“Who is Michael Jang?” asks Alec Soth. “I don’t know if he’s a hipster or a nerd, a conceptual genius or instinctual savant. All I know is that he takes some of best pictures I’ve ever seen.”

In 2001, San Francisco-based photographer Michael Jang submitted a wealth of photographs he’d taken in the 1970s and 80s to the city’s Museum of Modern Art, having rediscovered his archive and learned that portfolios could be dropped off for consideration. “To my knowledge, the museum has never actually found or discovered work that way for their collection or exhibitions,” Jang writes over email, but that’s exactly what happened in his case. The museum’s curators, Sandra S. Phillips and Douglas Nickel, set about obtaining the photographs and staging a show. Now, a monograph entitled Who is Michael Jang? looks back at the image-maker’s extraordinary archive of documentary, street and portrait photography. Photographers like SothRyan McGinley and Ed Templeton have been influenced by Jang’s enthralling archive (“These photos are an incredible time capsule of American life in 70s and 80s California as seen through Michael Jang’s witty, inquisitive, and offbeat eyes,” says Templeton).

As a student in California in the 1970s, Jang, then studying design, encountered street photography by image-makers like Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand through an elective course in photography. “It seemed more accessible,” he says, in comparison to much-studied names like Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. Jang took to the streets himself and, over more than a decade of experimenting with the medium, his subjects would range from his family, college friends and celebrities – the likes of Johnny Rotten and Ronald Reagan happen to have been captured by Jang – and people he simply crossed paths with.

Where Jang’s photography sets itself apart is its idiosyncratic sense of humour. Playful and candid, Jang’s approached the medium with irreverence – one collection of images in Who is Michael Jang? were taken at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, where the photographer snuck into events using home-made fake press passes and dressed in black tie. “I made press passes to the kind of events that interested me. So definitely a Rolling Stone credential for music events and a New York Times and a San Francisco Chronicle one for more general events,” he explains. “In actuality they were crudely made and I usually had to size up the level of security first so as gauge the odds of my being able to get by the guards. Once in it felt magical and adrenaline kicked in. I was basically making my dreams come true.” In this manner, fledgling image-maker Jang would photograph events like gala dinners and debutante balls, often attended by celebrities like Frank Sinatra and David Bowie. 

The same tongue-in-cheek, ad-hoc approach to discovering his subjects led Jang to meeting and photographing the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten, in a hotel bar on a January morning in 1978. “Johnny was cool. He and the band had just broken up the night before where they played their last concert ever at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco,” Jang remembers. “I was just respectful and approached him gingerly. Chatted briefly and took a few pictures. Then I went off on my way to photograph the Miyako Hotel employee of the month.” The usually untouchable world of celebrity collides with life’s mundanities in Jang’s oeuvre; his somewhat somber portrait of Rotten is published among riotous photographs of bands mid-song and enthusiastic crowds in a section of the book entitled ‘Punks and Poets’. 

As well as taking pictures on the streets of San Francisco, of uproarious college students at parties and an amusing series of portraits of people auditioning to be weather presenters, Jang turned his lens on his own family. The intimate images are compelling and sometimes bizarre (see: a photograph of the family cat climbing out of a toilet), documenting the busy rituals and routines of his aunt and uncle’s home. “I think we forget so much of the life we’ve lived if there is nothing to remind us,” says Jang. One group portrait of aunts and uncles mid-laughter resonates particularly with the photographer: “I have been asked before what my favourite picture is. I don’t have an answer. How about this: What picture, if you had to choose one, would you send to outer space as an example of life on earth? Then my Aunts and Uncles picture dancing with dark glasses is your answer.”

Who is Michael Jang? is available now, published by Atelier Editions. 

Michael Jang’s California is at the McEvoy Foundation for the Arts, San Francisco, until January 18, 2020.