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Book of the Week: Selected by Laura M. André

Book Of The Week Who Is Michael Jang? Photographs by Michael Jang Reviewed by Laura M. André San Francisco–based photographer Michael Jang spent nearly four decades working as a successful commercial portrait photographer. Unbeknownst to the world, however, he was simultaneously assembling a vast archive of thousands of remarkable images.
Who Is Michael Jang?  By Michael Jang.
Who Is Michael Jang?
Photographs by Michael Jang.

Atelier Éditions, Spain, 2019.
280 pp., color and black-and-white illustrations, 9½x11¾".

Collecting nearly four decades of work and spanning 256 pages, Who Is Michael Jang? is a staggering retrospective and an introduction to an extraordinary photographer who has remained largely unknown until now. His mostly black-and-white photographs, taken at home, at concerts and events, or on the streets of Los Angeles and San Francisco during the 1970s, indeed reveal how thoroughly he absorbed the lessons of John Szarkowski’s 1967 New Documents trinity: Arbus, Friedlander, and Winogrand.

But Jang’s wide-ranging images, simultaneously both absurd and banal, also carry whiffs of a motley crew of contemporaries: Janet Delaney’s protesters and Catherine Wagner’s cityscapes in rapidly changing 70s and 80s San Francisco; the meticulous staging of Mary Frey and Philip-Lorca DiCorcia; Mike Mandel’s affinity for what’s smart and quirky; John Myers’ descriptive and evocative 70s domestic portraiture; Bill Owens’ deadpan reportage; Stephen Shore’s early Warholian celebrity culture, plus his American surfaces and uncommon places; Larry Sultan’s bittersweet filial gaze; even Tseng Kwong Chi’s conceptual self-mockery. Jang’s private cache of photos was discovered by none other than Sandra S. Phillips and Douglas Nickel at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He’s received accolades from some of the coolest of the cool dudes in contemporary art: Erik Kessels, Barry McGee, Alec Soth, Ed Templeton, and Ryan McGinley. So why are we asking, “who’s Michael Jang?”

Who Is Michael Jang?  By Michael Jang.
Here’s a black-and-white snapshot of a kid on snow skis, posing like a downhiller in the family room. He grins at the camera, knowing full well how goofy he looks. But notice how the kid’s head sits at the bottom of a vertical line of three heads. At the top, a ski racer’s goggled and helmeted head echoes the kid’s; below that, another close-up head on the TV screen; finally, the kid’s head. Then, lurking quietly on the sofa: a creepy ventriloquist’s dummy, headless.

Chris Skiing Indoors (1973), Michael Jang
Another glance reveals the kid’s splayed ski poles, which point to the similarly V-shaped TV rabbit ears in the window, and below that, actual rabbits. Look even more closely at the jumbled mess on the left and you see board games, a roll of tape, a baseball glove, rabbit food, a glass containing only ice cubes, a can of Lysol, 3-in-1 oil, books, and a hundred other knick-knacks. Opposite that wall: an austere, mid-mod sofa with a tiny, intriguing scrap of paper peeking from the cushion at the far end.

Utterly banal yet extraordinarily absurd, Chris Skiing Indoors (1973) typifies Michael Jang’s images, the best of which balance a combination of what seem to be strategically placed clues amid barely controlled chaos. The image appears in the book’s first section, “The Jangs.” Taken during a summer off from college, the informal series features Jang’s aunt, uncle, and cousins, with whom he was living while taking a workshop with Lisette Model in nearby San Francisco. Leveraging his insider status in order to candidly photograph his family members—who, incidentally, clearly enjoy collaborating—Jang nonetheless had hoped to focus on street photography.

But Jang is a chameleon, and in the next section, “Beverly Hilton,” he’s fashioned a fake press pass, donned a tux, and infiltrated star-studded awards presentations, conventions, and other spectacles. Reminiscent of Friedlander and Winogrand’s party pictures, these images also betray a touch of Model’s influence—and by extension, Arbus’. Printed as a two-page spread, the deer-in-headlights, enigmatic Couple at the Lawrence Welk Dance (1973) indeed could be an enlarged fragment of an Arbus portrait.

Couple at the Lawrence Welk Dance (1973), Michael Jang
In “San Francisco,” Jang captured some of the city’s most celebrated and infamous events: Harvey Milk’s covered body on a gurney, George Moscone’s funeral, the Hooker’s Ball, Robin Williams, William S. Burroughs, Jerry Brown, Joan Baez, lovers gay and straight, the A’s World Series Championship, the Bay to Breakers race, and AIDS. “Summer Weather” features rather funny headshots Jang took of people who entered a TV station contest for a chance to present the evening’s weather segment.

Who Is Michael Jang?  By Michael Jang.
Three more sections comprise the second half of the book. “College” features less-remarkable images of shenanigans and lots of parties: young David Hasselhoff boogies at a school dance; Friedlander and Baldessari mug for the camera. “Punks & Poets” reveals Jang’s affinity for raucous concerts by The Mutants, Devo, and Sex Pistols, but most notably features rather tender portraits of Johnny Rotten on the day after, when Sex Pistols broke up. The final section, “Garage Band,” is more of an epilogue. Presented as a separate, 24-page booklet affixed to the inside of the rear cover, it features color photographs of Jang’s daughter’s peers striving to make it big.

Jang’s images are the type that inspire so many of us to try to become photographers. The great majority of us eventually realize that it’s way harder than it looks, and that it’s often more satisfying just to look. As if to answer its own titular question, at the book’s end a line of text declares, “Michael Jang is good for you.” He’s good for photography, too.

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Who Is Michael Jang?  By Michael Jang.

Laura M. André received her PhD in art history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and taught photo-history at the University of New Mexico before leaving academia to work with photobooks. She is the former manager of photo-eye's Bookstore.