Hailing from California, Michael Jang came of age during the 1970s. Over that decade, the photographer would amass several series of work, including The Jangs (1973), Beverly Hilton (1973), San Francisco (1973–1987), College (1972–1973), and Punks & Poets (1978–1980).
However, although he has been working as a portrait photographer ever since, Jang never showed anyone his work from this period until he submitted selections to San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art in 2001.
“The museum had a drop off policy and I remember thinking I had nothing to lose,” Jang says. “The work was already three decades old, so I no longer had any emotional attachment or investment in it. But the lesson is you have to keep trying to get your work out there. You never know who will see it and what might happen.”
The story begins at home. Growing up in a middle-class family, Jang’s father assiduously documented their lives with a camera and super-8 film. “Maybe your parents do influence you,” Jang says. “My dad loved documenting his family. He used to let me finish the last shot or two on a roll of film. That was the start.”
The Jangs became a natural subject for the budding photographer to begin his explorations. From there, Jang fashioned fake press passes so he could attend Hollywood events, debutante balls, and eclectic conventions at the Hilton hotel in Beverly Hills. As a self-proclaimed photographer for The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and The San Francisco Chronicle, Jang enjoyed the opportunity to freely photograph everyone, from David Bowie to Ronald Reagan.
“I don’t think I would try that now – youthful mischievousness then could be a misdemeanour now,” Jang says. “It wasn’t just about fake credentials though. I would have hopped a fence or sneaked in the back door too. Whatever it took. I just knew how to make an evening interesting for myself.”
That, ultimately, is the secret to Jang’s work. He is having the time of his life, whether whipping out a camera in the men’s room or kicking back with friends at Cal-Arts. “Ideas and advice which may have worked five decades ago might not be relevant for the current generation,” Jang says. “It really comes down to just working and enjoying the journey. There is no magic pill.”
Michael Jang’s California is on view at McEvoy Foundation for the Arts in San Francisco through January 18, 2020.
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