Who is Michael Jang? The answer, and this essential book, will delight you.
The photography world has recently been abuzz with news of a rediscovered master who toiled in relative obscurity for decades. Photographer Michael Jang has had a long and active career but remained largely in the shadows. A 2014 small format book that published his collection of audition shots for a weatherman gig provided just a sample of his versatile work. With features in The New Yorker and Aperture and now, the release by Atelier Éditions of his first major monograph, Who Is Michael Jang, the art-minded and general audience alike will be seeing a lot of this terrific work.
Jang’s own answer to the title question is as dryly cheeky as his photos. He told an interviewer recently that he’s part Walter Mitty “having an overactive fantasy imagination” and part Forrest Gump, a figure who has hobnobbed with celebrities “and regularly quotes his momma.” Momma, and his upbringing, are a large part of what makes Jang’s vision so alive. In fact, a whole section of the book is devoted to his family. Jang’s grandparents came to California from China, but by the time he was born, the family was so assimilated that his childhood was, as he explains it, less ethnic and more “Leave It to Beaver.” In one of the earliest picture he made as a child, Jang finds the right spot in Candlestick Park to catch the attention of baseball legend Willie Mays, who looks up at the boy for a wonderful candid moment that anticipated the way the mature artist would both capture his subjects unawares and make them feel comfortable in front of the camera.
By his early twenties, Jang had a fully developed eye, and you can see this in the book’s first section, devoted to family candids made while he was in college in the summer of 1973. Two very different group portraits from this period demonstrate his genius. The first seems to be in the family living room, where a handful of kids each have their heads buried in reading material—an Archies comic book, or Mad magazine. The second, in front of a studio backdrop, features a group of adult relatives. Each of these shots is composed with the care of a Renaissance master, yet they also look completely spontaneous? How did he manage to wrangle a group of eight relatives, mostly looking in different directions, and capture each of their specific personalities despite the fact they’re all wearing glasses that obscure their eyes?
If this book is any indication, Jang worked such magic on a regular basis, putting people at such ease that it’s like there’s no photographer there at all; on the other hand, his subjects are clearly interacting with Jang, who acts as an unobtrusive director, coaxing the right, natural-looking performance out of his actors. And sometimes he’d be there for some other off-kilter absurdity, as in a photo where a cat is crawling out of a toilet bowl, or a dog is standing on its hind legs in front of a clothes dryer, a family portrait hanging on the wall behind it. One imagines he did some quick animal wrangling to pull off these shots, and the more Jang images the scene the more you have fun trying to reverse-engineer his process. Yet much of the charm here is simply the force of personality, as in the many shots of Jang’s Aunt Lucy, sitting on the phone under her own oil portrait or pointing determinedly at a bottle of bleach on top of the washing machine. Lucy looks like a force of nature, tough but with a sly sense of humor that plays right into her nephew’s eyes.
Jang is very much a California photographer, taking advantage of the access to celebrities in Los Angeles, where he studied at CalArts. A second section covers work from the Beverly Hilton, where he captured the rich and famous with an insight and matter-of-factness that is rare even in a seasoned professional. Jang made personal, vivid candids of A-listers when he was barely out of his teens, and he did it with faked press credentials. He would mosey into the ballroom and get shots of people like Frank Sinatra (with Ronald Reagan and Milton Berle at the same banquet table) and Jack Lemmon, Carl Reiner and David Bowie, looking somehow more down to earth in a sportcoat that even in black and white looks flashy. Jang was found out a few times, but he kept going back until he had enough material to complete a college assignment.
That’s just the book’s first two sections, but there are more surprises to come. For instance, what iconic British punk rocker did Jang just happen to stumble upon on the night of their legendary final show in San Francisco? And how perfectly did Jang evoke the ‘70s in his studio portraits of prospective TV weathermen?
An introductory essay comes from noted publisher-collector Erik Kessels, who as an editor has made a career out of finding something fresh and even bizarre in the ordinary. Kessels explains that, “It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what makes Jang’s work so captivating, which is precisely what makes Jang’s work so captivating.” You can find Jang on Instagram, where for the moment he’s reveling in the late-career attention for work much more compelling than any hundred influencers. Who is Michael Jang? The answer, and this essential book, will delight you.