Artist's Statement: Michael Jang on How Old Family Photos Became a Big Hit
It was Renoir who said that a work of art "must seize upon you, wrap you up in itself, and carry you away." Interviews with artists should have a similar effect. With "Artist's Statement," our weekly interview series with prominent and upcoming visual artists in San Francisco, SF Weekly speaks to the people behind the art you see in the galleries, in the museums, and in the streets.
A San Francisco photographer who has specialized in commercial work and portraiture, Michael Jang has received much recent acclaim for his series "The Jangs," which he took in the 1970s. The photos - of his cousins, uncle, and aunt at their home in Pacifica - are on display at Stephen Wirtz Gallery through July 13, which is the first time the series has been exhibited in a gallery setting. Jang grew up in Marysville, about 115 miles northeast of San Francisco in Yuba County, and received his BFA at Cal Arts and MFA at the San Francisco Art Institute. Jang, 62, spoke to SF Weekly about his late-blooming success, taking photos as a college student of David Bowie and other celebrities, and why he learned to do psychedelic lighting for Bill Graham.
Courtesy of Michael Jang "At Home With the Jangs"
Q: You exhibited "The Jangs" at University High School in 2008, and in a Madrid magazine in 2010, but the exhibition at Stephen Wirtz Gallery is the first time the photos have appeared in a gallery. Why did it take 40 years?
A: It's a gradual thing. It's kind of like a Broadway play doesn't open on Broadway. It starts maybe in a smaller town. So I started showing them in a high-school hallway five years ago. And the reaction was so good that the San Francisco Chronicle had it front page on their Datebook section, with a photo. That's pretty good for a high-school photo show. And then another easy and safe way to test the work was to see if people would publish it. And several international magazines caught on and printed the stuff. Eventually, I got around to showing them at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and they acquired some of the images. At that point, you go in for meetings and things, and the curator there, Sandra Phillips, suggested I talk to the Wirtzes. And that's how it all started.
Q: Any thoughts of, "Why wasn't this happening before?"
Courtesy of Michael Jang "Aunts and Uncles"
A: The honest reason was that I went to school and just took the pictures for homework. And I had to get real and make a living and raise a family and the whole thing. When my kids were grown up and done with college, I just had time to look into this old stuff and see about getting it out there. So it's as simple as that.
Q: As you look at the photos 40 years after you took them, do you see things that a) you wish you hadn't taken; and b) you wish you had?
A: Absolutely not. I'm not a greedy person. I don't think you can go back. Occasionally, what I really think about is maybe a wider subject matter in my career of shooting many different things. The '60s were an amazing time, but I was also just a teenager, so I was a little too young to be an artist. But, my gosh, if you think about things like the Civil Rights Movement, yes, definitely. Hippies? Maybe not. The '60s had an amazing amount of things of interest. But those were the formative years, when I opened my eyes and saw what was going on in the world. What I did in high school was light shows for Bill Graham. I'm not saying I did a lot, but I did some. That's something that kids that age aren't into. That may have been the start of me branching out into doing some interesting things.
Q: How have your family members reacted to the images being in the spotlight all these years later?
A: It's not the images themselves but more the attention that they're getting. It's a surprise to everybody in the family. If you can imagine - what if your family's pictures from 40 years ago were being put out there and written about and seen. It'd just be kind of like, "What?"
Q: One of your "Jangs" images shows a TV set with the white actor David Carradine on screen in the series Kung Fu. Carradine is white. In the 1970s, there were very few images of Asian Americans.
A: That's kind of perfect, isn't it - because it's a white guy being Asian.
Courtesy of Michael Jang "Chris in Record Store"
Q: So were you inspired to be a photographer because there weren't many images of Asian Americans, and you wanted to get more out there?
A: The '70s were the beginning of what you might call the Golden Age of being a photo student. I remember in 1973 that the only real photo magazine was this thing called Popular Photography. The editor made it a project to visit photo schools around the country to see what was going on. And they chose three people - and I was one of them, at Cal Arts, and they showed "The Jangs." So, that right there should have told me something. But honestly when you're that young you don't even think about it. It was also a Golden Age because there were a lot of great photographers who visited schools or actually taught. The '70s were the beginning of the photo thing starting to happen. So the past 30 years, there's been an explosion, especially with digital.
Q: How did you get into light shows for Bill Graham?
A: The light shows were the psychedelic shows. That's what I did in high school instead of going out and partying. What it was like in the '60s - it was a great time for music. Imagine seeing The Doors or Jimi Hendrix for three dollars. Not only that, they played two sets. So this was just a great time. I remember walking around The Fillmore, and I went upstairs and I saw these guys doing these liquids, and I thought, "Well, OK - I know who I am. I'm not going to be on the stage, but I can certainly do that." So I would bug them, these old, hippie guys - they were old to me; they were just 20 - and I'd say, "how can you do that?" Don't forget, I'm from Marysville, and I'm just a teenager. And I managed to get a ride to the Fillmore. I'd go home and gradually got enough equipment and experimented with it at home and started doing Northern California gigs till I actually go the Fillmore. By that time, I was getting older and had to go away to college.
Q: Is the David Bowie image from your Fillmore days?
Courtesy of Michael Jang "David Bowie signing autographs, Beverly Hilton Hotel"
A: No, that's from the very first homework assignment I ever had as a photo student at Cal Arts. I did a project - this is before "The Jangs" - that I called "Party From Banquets at the Beverly Hilton Hotel." I put a suit on and I crashed the parties until they pretty much kicked me out.
Q: In fact, in a story about you, Wired magazine said your "early portfolio was a gutsy accomplishment" and that, "Desperate for access to events beyond the reach of normal people, he fabricated his own press passes to sneak past security, grabbing photos of people like Frank Sinatra with Ronald Reagan." Can you elaborate about how desperate you were to take these images?
A: To be fair, I wasn't desperate. Honestly, when you're that age, and you're just doing it as homework, you're not desperate - you're having fun, you're inventive, you're curious, you're challenged to sneak past the security guards. That's what it was. It wasn't being desperate at all. You do get a little adrenaline rush, you know? And I also knew that hard work pays off. If you want something different, you have to think a little bit outside the box. Can you imagine now, if you're a photographer, if you're in college, getting into the Beverly Hilton now for the Golden Globes? Or, instead of a party for Frank Sinatra, a party for Jay-Z? You think you're going to get in there? No way. So, what am I doing in there? Would I be able to do it now? That would be another issue.
Q: So, what's left for Michael Jang in this next phase of your career?
A: Let's suppose that first third (of my career) was shooting. And the second third was raising a family and being responsible for that. And maybe this last third is about taking that first third's work that has been just in boxes, and getting it out for the world to see.