Monday, March 2, 2015

Q & A with Michael Jang

Michael Jang by Amanda Boe
Michael Jang is a photographer based in San Francisco.

One photo of yours that struck me when I saw it was the Willie Mays shot which I remember from the Early Works show last year put together by Laura Moya and Laura Valenti. You took that when you were 9? Were you already into photography at that point?

Apparently I had paparazzi tendencies at an early age. I may even have been a decent sniper. It’s funny how the verb associated with taking pictures has always been “shoot” and a sniper usually works alone, maintains close visual contact with the target and remains totally focused until making the shot.

What do you mean? Were you a shutterbug as a kid? Or interested in celebrities? Or both?

My dad usually brought a camera to the ballpark. I started borrowing it to take some pictures. At Candlestick Park the players entered and exited the field through the only door in right field. Knowing this- I waited there for Willie after pre game batting practice- when he approached- I yelled “Hey Willie!” He looked up, I snapped it- complete with finger smudge on lens. 

Candlestick Park, 1960, Michael Jang

Was your dad a serious photographer? 
Serious hobbyist. He was a businessman in the sense that he had a little department store in a small northern California town, Marysville. He just liked buying cameras and taking movies to document his own family- and there you might have the beginning of a story (why I take pictures). 

Michael Jang's father

Do you still have the photos and films he made back then?

Yes. I have shown his work from the 30’s Depression Era through the 1960's to people who have seen The Jangs and they are amazed at how American our lifestyle was back even then. 

Michael Jang (right) with his sister Gaynor, circa late 1950s
So you grew up around cameras. And you were taking photos at 5. That's quite young. When did photography begin to assume greater importance for you? 

I only took one picture at 5. I could tell he gave me the camera to take a shot of HIM and my sister- it's hilarious- the perfect snapshot: blurred, pole coming out of his head- her looking down with a bonnet so you couldn’t see her face. I got my first camera- a Pentax Spotmatic for Christmas in high school and immediately took it to a Jimi Hendrix concert. 40 years later an image that I took from that concert ended up being on a Hendrix CD- his last unfinished album. I took my first actual photography class at Cal Arts in the early Seventies and did the Beverly Hilton series as  student homework, followed by the Jangs- family photos.

One of the photos you sent shows you in a band. I'm assuming that interest was related to you later shooting musicians and doing light shows, etc. What sort of music were you playing and listening to then?

It was 50 years ago! And this week something great happened- The singer in the band sent me a few Polaroids that were taken with my dad’s camera. We also have a reel to reel tape of  10 songs- some Rolling Stones, 2 Yardbirds, a Paul Revere and the Raiders, Gloria by Them, Little Latin Lupe Lu- AND a cult fave: You're Gonna Miss Me by The 13th Floor Elevators- all at age 15- in a small town of 10,000. I’m amazed at how we managed to take pictures and record ourselves- It could be one of the earliest records of an American garageband. Apparently we practiced at the drummer's house- in his garage. His dad had a vending machine business, so we had all the free cigarettes we wanted- and he also had juke boxes stored in the garage- explaining how we learned the songs- we just played the 45’s over and over.

Free cigarettes at 15? Great! Do you still play music now?

I still have the guitars and amps- they look like something Jack White would use. We got cheap gear from Sears and Montgomery Wards.

Michael Jang (right) in his band, circa mid-1960s

You mentioned The Jangs a moment ago. That was the first project of yours I saw. It was showing in San Francisco in 2013 in the 49 Geary building. It made a strong connection because I also shoot my family quite a bit. Did you have a sense at the time you were shooting these that they'd be a body of work later? Or were you just caught up in the moment shooting whatever people were handy?

I had no idea of any importance they might have decades later. It started simply in workshop I took one summer with Lisette Model. Diane Arbus had just died and I had heard she was Diane’s teacher. I thought I was going to do street photography but I realized my cousins (who let me stay with them) were great subjects.  So the Beverly Hilton series at Cal Arts was my first project that I did for class- but certainly The Jangs followed shortly thereafter. I put the work away and didn't do anything with it for decades.

Did you make visits to your cousins only to photograph? Or was it more of an immersive thing in which they were always around?

I still had a couple more years at Cal Arts and probably kept doing family when visiting home for the holidays etc. The Jangs paralleled Bill Owens' work on Suburbia which was done at the same time, but I didn't know about him until later.

They look similar in some ways. But his were made of strangers mostly. A different dynamic.

Yes, I think Bill was a newspaper and event photographer so he had great access to everyone in his community. You get in, get the story, move on.  My series was more about following one family, sort of like the The Louds in the 1971 PBS documentary An American Family.

What did Lisette Model think of The Jangs?

I can't remember-40 years is a long time - I got Honors and I remember she said I would have been a successful Life or Look photographer. 

from The Jangs

What was your general impression of Lisette Model? 
I thought she was a witch. BTW- I taped the classes and transcribed them into a Notebook- I may do a project/book with it.

She was mean?

No- not mean- but she was eccentric looking and possessed a power- just witchy in a mysterious "I know something you don't" way. I sensed she had access to a parallel universe- but that phrase wasn't part of my vocabulary back then. Once at a party thrown by one of the students, I photographed her- no one else dared. I placed a long stemmed flower in her hand- she knew what I was doing and called me on it, but let me shoot anyway- then— for the first and only time EVER— I developed the film in.... fixer. She had cast her spell. 

Wow. So you have no photos of her? Bummer. I've screwed up my film just about every way possible but I don't think I've ever developed in fixer. That's a new one.

No photos. I’m fine with just the memory.

When you were shooting The Jangs did you have lines you wouldn't cross? Did you ever encounter scenes that you felt uncomfortable photographing? Or turn up photos later that you didn't want to make public?

Good question- but this wasn’t Behind the Rolling Stones on Tour, our families were/are still pretty conservative in behavior. But to answer your question, I tended to cross the line first- and if there was a problem, then I wouldn't do it again. No, nothing was shot that was edited out.

What do you mean "problem"? Did the act of you photographing ever create tension?

Once my uncle was having his morning coffee and reading the paper- I took his picture and he put up his hand (I have the shot) and firmly said: "No. Not now." Totally reasonable. A boundary had been set up and I respected his morning time.

But you still took the photo.

He got very cross, and instincts said shoot.

Photography is odd. It has an inherent power dynamic I think. Maybe that's why your photo of Model didn't turn out. She was cursing the natural order. But sometimes it sets up a weird relationship of using people. So applying the same approach to shooting Beverly Hilton celebrities as your own family has tension possibly.

Too deep, Blake :)

Doesn't photography use people?

from Beverly Hilton

If you shoot a can of peas, are you using it? It's just a choice of what you point your camera at.

Well, a can of peas has no feelings.

Oh right, your question was about people- but my point, from the photographer’s perspective- is that it’s all the same- whether you are looking at a wall or a baby, you just try to make the best image possible. I suppose if I was a paparazzi and shot celebs for $- that could be using- but often they are using you for publicity too.

Sure. That's the tension. I think photography has a built in power dynamic. So it sometimes creates issues when shooting family. For me at least.

So your question really is not about the photography/photographer- but about people's feelings if they are the subject? Too deep.

Too deep but surely you've thought about it?

Look, I extend the antennas to detect pools of energy, respond and react with little if no thought, shoot like a blind man with ADHD and bail. Or maybe not ADHD but Aspergers where I understand empathy might be an issue. That’s another subject.

Is that what good photography requires? Some level of ruthlessness? I think it might. What do you think?

Look, photography is enjoyable to me as long as I don’t have to analyze it. 

What happened to The Jangs after you shot it? Why did it stay buried so long? And when and why did it resurface?

I didn't think my work was anything special and after graduating I just got on with life. Three decades later I heard you could drop your portfolio off at SFMoMA. It seemed harmless and I wouldn't have even felt any rejection since it had been so long since I was a student. That's how it all started. Sandra Phillips, SFMoMA’s head photography curator, called me in for a chat. They plan to show a small sampling of The Jangs when the Museum reopens in 2016.

Very cool. So that's how it happened? That sounds like a fable. You drop work off randomly. Someone powerful sees it and Boom. Does that ever actually happen? I guess so.

I am a very lucky person and I live in gratitude every day.

It makes you wonder. The work was high quality. It was out there. But it required someone in power to endorse it. It demonstrates that the work alone isn't enough. Someone needs to vouch for it.

Well, there’s always plain ol’ chutzpah. I remember trying to get any kind of photo related jobs, and I noticed that certain New Yorkers just ran circles around us California kids. I always envied that. It was like I didn’t get the gene. But I eventually got better at it, thirty years later. That's THAT world- Now I spend time with Hamburger Eyes and the PHOTOCOPY Club (from London) where they offer big Xerox prints for a few pounds. 

In unlimited editions I assume? What's the thinking behind the big Xerox prints? Is it a backlash against photography as precious fine art hidden behind glass? 

I feel honored that Ray at Hamburger Eyes and Matt at Photocopy Club allow me to participate in the DIY world. I'm just along for the ride while they call the shots. The Photocopy Club sells prints as 1 of 1 BTW.

The SFMoMA talk makes me wonder about this comment you made in another interview:
"You get this freedom when you don’t have a reputation, you can do whatever you want. I wouldn’t be showing in high school hallways and Pirate Cat Radio if I was at a certain level." 
Do you think your reputation has changed recently? I mean, you're in SFMoMA now! And if so, has it taken away some of your photographic freedom?

Being in the SFMoMA wasn't my only goal. It's all equally important to me. I mean I do recognize the level of difference but they are all nourishing in their own ways. You hear about well known film actors who yearn to get back to the stage- back to basics- stay hungry, stay challenged. I don’t think anything’s changed except each year more people discover the work.

Your work is easy to find online now. But why do you have two separate websites? It's sort of confusing.

Do I? and One is a sort of portfolio site and one is modeled after a Google Search page.

Oh- the dot info- was...there was a story on that- didn't know it was still up-  It was a goof- done for fun years ago- Everything is a link to projects, even the pop-up ads on the right and the map, videos, etc along the top.

Right. I saw the article which is how I found that. Is it not current? It actually has more links than your other site.

Well, that was the point- It had to have anything and everything as if you Googled my name. At that time people were fearful I would be hearing from Google. Plus my daughter worked there and I didn’t want her associated with any trouble caused by me. But I took the risk figuring it was too small a thing for them to worry about. I mean, how would they look going after an artist? As it turns out, their legal department spends almost all of its time fending off suits against them. My regular site is edited for just the more important articles. I should probably take the .info site down.

It's quite clever. I have found a few quotes there and in a few other places. Can I run a few by you? For example in the Wired article you say,
"I noticed photographers who had started out as fine artists. The more successful they got, they paid a price. Their eye had to switch over and get totally cleaned up. And then when they would try to do fine art the pictures were just neutralized in some way." 
What does "cleaned up" mean? And is it bad? I keyed on that phrase because I think it's pretty wide spread. I don't know if it's because of commercial work or whatever. But I see a lot of photography, even non-Photoshopped work, which seems "neutralized". I think that's why I like The Jangs so much. Because it's real, or seems real. That's my two cent critique of the photo world. There's a tendency to use the camera to put the world in a nice clean box and frame it up and color correct and whatever. That's not how the world looks to me. 

Oh- your partial quote leaves out a key part which was about artists who did full time commercial work very successfully after art school. I have friends who went to fine art school, then they had to get regular $ jobs. Weddings, portraits- advertising work, etc. A lot of us did. If you do that too long, your subconscious can go from edginess to Hallmark cards- Photoshopping for salable perfection, losing the original grit and soul. It can become your norm. So you venture back into an art project and you find yourself cleaning up a skin blemish, trash on the street, or a powerline that’s in the way- just because you can.

Do you need to keep that commercial brain separate from the creative/personal side?

I did simple portraits on a grey drop with one light for my work- so it was apples and oranges- didn't really get confused with taking out a Leica and hitting the streets with total freedom. I’ve slowed down on the commercial work now as my kids are done with college. Now I’m taking up where I left off when I was 30. I just skipped 30 years, that's all.

Congrats putting kids through school, by the way. Not easy to do as a photographer!

Yes- I tell people that's a lot of 8x10s to sell to raise a family. I’m spending more of my days now working on organizing my archives for people to view- please come by when in SF!

OK. Since we're talking about your archives can I ask about your earlier street photos? I saw some early SF street work of yours somewhere. From the 1980s? How active were you as a street shooter then and what about now?

I once saw my Planet of the Apes beauty contest photo online and it was attributed t0 Winogrand- what an honor that was!

I think I know the photo (of the apes). One of your other photos shows a guy in a suit on an SF street corner. What was the context behind that photo? Were you an active street shooter then or now?

Oh that suit was me- a self portrait done in the Seventies. My left arm is holding the Leica and a 21mm lens made it look like there’s more distance between me and the camera. 

A selfie before the word was invented. What was the context? Did you shoot a lot downtown back then?

from The Jangs

I was still a student and had seen Lee Friedlander’s Self Portrait book. I tried a few rolls- not a lot.

Is that part of your life now? Do you take photo walks with your Leica?

I still shoot and as always just put it away- lately I’ve been going to more local shows. I’ve had my fun and it’s time to support others.

That question is related to another quote of yours:
"How often have you taken the camera and gone out, just walking around shooting? Go back to the six- to eight-hour days that you’ve been at the computer over a year or two or three and you will find that you probably are not shooting that much." 
That resonated with me because I find that world creeping into my own life. My shooting/computer ratio has definitely become smaller in recent years.

Can't remember saying that- was it here?  

It's from the Wired article I'm probably your worst nightmare. An interviewer pulling up old quotes and asking what you meant by them.

You seem like a more interesting person to interview than me- hope you've had your shot?

I've been interviewed a few times. No grand revelations.

Small interviews are good practice- See what works, what resonates, what needs to be done to make it more interesting next time. I recently spoke at the Battery in SF for Stephen- It was fun to get up and wing it- showing photos and videos- it was quite fun.

Do you think your photos are funny? 

I get an occasional chuckle.

I think your sense of humor comes through them. It's one of the things which activates them for me.

I think we have to remember that when we talk about my work or me- it's in the past tense as in 3 or 4 decades ago. Maybe I was a bit ruthless back then in a sense of just shooting and going for the shot at all costs. Now-I’m a much more warm and sensitive being and so my pictures quite boring. Haha, like that?
I'm assuming you saw the Winogrand SFMoMA show last year. What did you think? 

The only thing I can tell you about Winogrand is once I was walking with him in North Beach here in SF. He walked up to a playground that had a cyclone fence. He poked his lens through an opening, took a shot and walked on. I decided to look through the exact place where he put his camera. At first it was a typical Garry shot with lots going on- kids on swings etc, but then I saw it- a couple going at it under a park bench.

Do you think he was ruthless with a camera? Did he have a conscience?

Being around him- and Lee- It wasn't like you were around "artists". I'd been in painting classes in art school and these two seemed like just regular guys who enjoyed shooting all the time like some people exercise or eat- they didn't talk about art ideas or the work that much. I wonder what he would have said if someone had asked him if he was ruthless or had a conscience. I have no idea. These two dodged any artsy questions like the plague- It was just "I just shoot to entertain myself and I don't care what you think."

What's the notebook book you mentioned?

It has transcribed notes from when I was a student (I taped the classes) with people like Lee Friedlander, Lisette Model, Garry Winogrand, A.D. Coleman, and Ralph Gibson. It might be interesting for people to get a sense of what it was like to be a student in the golden age- when these people taught/visited your classes in the Seventies.

I can't speak for others but from that description I would be interested.

One vote!

You call that the "Golden Age" of photography. 

The golden age of being a photo student perhaps but not necessarily photography in general. 

What do you think is going on now? How will this period be described in 2050?

You get to chime in- what do you think this period will be known for?

I was afraid you'd ask that. I think it's pretty exciting now because the bar between high and low art has been removed. It's all swimming in the same soup and some really interesting stuff is floating to the surface. But also a lot of crap. A LOT of crap. So good luck to future photographers sorting it all out. My philosophy is to make physical objects of the things I want to last. Books and prints will carry on I think. Which is sort of counter to the everyday idea. Most photos I see now are not in that form. So it's working against the tide a bit. Actually I have doubts if civilization will be around in 2050. Humans are doing a good job destroying the world.


Self Portrait by Michael Jang

I've spent parts of each summer for the past 25 years on glaciers in the northwest. I know for a fact they'll be gone by the time my kids are old. That just crushes me. Too depressing. Sorry.

I totally get it- I don't read the articles anymore. You don't have to- you see the photo and get sick. 

You're not the first to refer to the 1970s as a photographic golden age. I think many people feel that way and I'm wondering what was going on then. Was it something actually special or just nostalgia?

Oh that will take some time but I can start- First- you could pick a subject that hadn’t been overexposed yet or maybe even be the first. Tract housing, prison- Try that now. So I think there was not only a hope and excitement in the air- but you could explore visually a subject without having a clue to its outcome. Now- since we've seen so much of everything- I think we already 80% know what the images are going to look like.

Hindsight is always 20/20. Thirty years from now we might look back and wonder at all the new directions and subjects photography has explored since 2014. I guess I'm saying it always feels like things have been done. But there's always room for new stuff.

Certainly hope so.

But maybe it felt less like that in the 1970s. Who knows. I wasn't a photographer then. Born in 1968.

An interesting question- Do you ask a senior citizen about the future or a 20-something?

Maybe neither. Someone who's 50 is probably thinking most clearly about the future. Which might color the photographs of young people. They generally have little sense of posterity so they don't imagine their photos in a future context. It makes the photos stronger and also worse. Maybe.

from Garage Band

Michael Jang (left) holding guitar, circa early 1960s

Then maybe I’ll ask Alec Soth when he turns 50.

What about now? What have you been up to recently?

If there’s a show or person that intrigues me, I read up on the creativity involved, what they went through to get where they are now. Anthony Bourdain, Lena from Girls. We’ve all heard it a million times- do what you love etc- and throw in “no fear- and try not to compromise” Been watching Anthony Bourdain's show- and he was recently on Rose- The ingredients for a rewarding life's work is in his method.

And what are the ingredients for a rewarding life's work?

His sort of Mission statement- It's a quality of life issue- have fun, surround yourself with people you like. He surrounds himself with people he wants to be with, hangs with his team of 14 years. Are you proud of what you're doing? Do we have anything to regret when we look in the mirror tomorrow?

The have fun-be happy part is the stickler. It sounds simple. But getting to that point is the end of a very long process which is sometimes tough. Yeah, just be happy. Why can't we all do that? Duh. Not so easy.

Oh sorry, we have to get philosophical a bit now- there is no “end”. You of course know that. Especially in art. Always best to just take a day at a time- be in the moment as they say- and so you might as well appreciate today, instead of thinking we might be “happier” later- When? When we’re a little more famous or well-known? We all know that doesn’t always work. 

Bourdain insists on having the freedom to do what he wants, to be as creative as they want to be- He'll see a Wong Kar-Wai movie in the hotel room, then meet with the crew and discuss where they can do a show that can have that look. 

Of course he's in a life situation where that's possible. He has a crew. He can direct the elements around him. Most people, especially young photographers, are not in the same boat.

I don’t think he or we should think of any stage as the end part of a process but rather as an ongoing process- meaning no limits for growth or accomplishment. 

If I can summarize, you like Bourdain because he's taken control of his life. He follows his own impulses without much thought of outside opinion. Is that correct?
My guess is that even when he started he had these principles. It’s just as one gets older in their profession and achieves an even wider success, people aren’t aware of all the work that has gone into it. 

Looking back at your career, do you have any regrets?

One can feel that you could have always done more- but I don't dwell on that. I recall a few situations when I was young where I froze and couldn't shoot.

I have regrets about not sleeping with certain women when I was young and single. I had some very good opportunities but I was too shy or too much of a prude or something. I was just stupid. Now I look back and kick myself.

Ouch, that’s a tough one. When I was 20- in LA, I saw Mohammed Ali with his entourage in a hotel just lounging around- His big time aura and reputation froze me. He probably would have welcomed a young photography student to shoot if I had the nerve to just go up and ask. I also saw Steve McQueen standing in the middle of nowhere- looking lost- wish I would have engaged- but I was young,  just starting out- I don't beat myself up about it, and I have more than made up for it. Sometimes you have to fail a lot to learn from mistakes- it’s all good- part of the process.

(All photographs above by Michael Jang unless otherwise noted)


David Simonton said...

What a wonderful interview! Thank you both. And sign me up for a copy of The Golden (Age) Notebook: Talks Transcribed. I've got my checkbook ready….

Unknown said...

"I developed the film in.... fixer."

Been there, done that. And without such a good excuse.

John said...

Another fantastic conversation! Thank you Michael and Blake. Also, count me in with another vote for the Friedlander Notebook in any kind of published form.

Hernan Zenteno said...

Me too with the book of masters classes. Very inspiring comments, enjoy the moment, be free, pursue happiness. So simple an so difficult. Many thanks