Q&A: Michael Jang

22.01.14

The world of self promotion, accolades and the spot light isn’t all it’s cracked up to be for Michael Jang, in fact for a long time it seems as though he has gone out of his way to avoid it. However, being at the precipice of some of the most significant cultural events of the last 40 years, photographically speaking, Michael Jang sits pretty.

“Without a camera I would be sitting on my duff like most people “watching” the world go by. But with a camera I felt more in it”.

And how Michael came to the party is interesting in itself. Subterfuge and espionage were the calling cards of some of his earlier work, infiltrating the weird heart of hollywood with forged press passes, snapping old Blue Eyes and Reagan’s Pearly whites, or capturing a couch full of bloated party guests, sinking into the furniture. It’s fair to say that access and sand alone have been responsible for some of Michaels best work. From revolutionary Cuba, to cowboys and punk rock, whats so remarkable about Jang’s photographs is that you feel that you’re there with him, on the pulse, riding shotgun.

We speak to Michael about his work, keeping vital and how not to end up in a show called “Snooze Fest”.

Access seems to have played a pivotal role in guiding your photographic narrative. From forging fake press passes to infiltrating bay area garage punk, could you tell us a little about how important entrée has been for you? 

Had I been gifted with the ability to write, I probably would have been an investigative reporter. Going to or getting into places where you’re not necessarily welcome at first. But you have to be open and honest, make your intentions clear and finally gain trust. They don’t teach you that in art school.

Starting out with what seems to be quite a candid and personal approach with your photography, you then went the commercial route, setting up a photographic studio taking portraits. Have these double lives been kept entirely separate or in harmony? How did you reconcile a commercial career with more subjective pursuits in photography?

I observed a few friends who also had gone to art school, but decided to do commercial work for a living and ultimately had their passion and vision diluted. Their once “creative” work got safe and neutralized- think “stock photography.” I kept it apples and oranges. Shooting an occasional suicide or murder never got confused with doing something for Hallmark cards.

You’ve been there at the forefront of punk music, rubbed shoulders with the Hollywood elite, spent time in revolutionary Cuba, the places and people you have photographed have been quite varied. Did you chase these events down because it would make for good photos or was there a personal or cultural pull regardless of having a camera in your hands? 

Good question. Without a camera I would be sitting on my duff like most people “watching” the world go by. But with a camera I felt more in it. Still an observer, but also a participant. Preparation is very key. Deciding on what equipment to bring (only bring what is necessary) and plotting your strategies and covering all bases in your mind ahead of time. Once all the technicals and basic planning of the shoot are set- you are then free to respond spontaneously and let intuition take over, much like an athlete preparing for the Big Game.

One thing that does stand out as a common thread in your series is a strong desire to seek out what is vital and young. What keeps you on the pulse?

I respect people’s time and try to avoid making work that could be in a show called Snooze Fest. Chinese have the word Qi (chi) or life force. I must have a nose for it because once it enters my radar, the trigger gets pulled.

Having dodged the world of self-promotion and galleries it has permitted you a certain amount of anonymity, has that made it easier for you to infiltrate certain areas? Or freed you of peoples expectations of being “Michael Jang”. 

I’m reminded of a scene in Basquiat where Jeffrey Wright asks Benicio Del Toro in a pick up basketball game: “How long does it take to get famous?” Benicio says: “Four years. Six to get rich. You got to do the same kind of work, the same kind of style so people can recognize it and not get confused. Then once you’re famous, you gotta keep doing it in the same way even after it’s boring, unless you want people to get mad at you, which they will anyway.” For many, that might sound like a good problem but I certainly am not in that league. I recently did have the good fortune to meet Ray Fong as we were in a group show together at the S.F. Asian Art Museum. I love his work and the spirit in which it is being made. I’d love to put work out there free for public viewing and even under an alias. Currently there are twenty bus stops in Los Angeles that are using my photographs as part of a Make Art Public program. It’s for public viewing on the streets, but my name is still on them. I’m getting there.

At the time, did you feel you had something remarkable with series like “Meet the Jang’s” or “College”. I read somewhere that you like an image to age like a fine wine. What is it do you think, that makes an image powerful when it’s ripped out of its original time and place?

I’ve never ever felt that anything I’ve done was going to be remarkable. Since it’s hard for an artist in any medium to go into the future for inspiration, going to the past is the easier option. People can study something that interests them from before and incorporate whatever is useful into what they are currently doing. Walker Evans never really knocked me out but I’ve studied him more than anyone.

The common debate: Film v. Digital. What are your thoughts, or is it even still relevant?

 This is a topic that has been much written about by many and I’m sure I have nothing new to offer. But a decade ago I was telling people that 99 (point) something % of ALL digital images will never see the light of day as a print. Recently I’ve been feeling that more than half of all digital images will be lost. Broken hard drives, old computers with years of pictures on them in the garage (that you’ll get to someday), or even just poor filing. I must have countless thousands of pictures labeled something like DCS0837. That’s the technical part. On the creative (shooting) part, I think it was different knowing you had 36 shots on the roll and you had to make them count. I remember knowing the key moment for an event being moments away and only having a few shots left. Do you stop and reload and maybe miss the shot, or do you make do with just the three shots. It’s a different mind set and I liked the edge it forced on you, that you could make the wrong decision and bomb out. When asked for advice, I say make sure you save your work. My negatives may be scratched and dusty from 40 years ago, but they’re still here. And I now think of that aging and wear as a patina, like the wonderful pops and scratches on a favorite vinyl record.

Having taken photos of people in all manner of habitats for over thirty years, have you noticed a change in peoples reactions depending on the context of why and how you are there? Now that every Joe has a camera, have you also noticed a shift in public attitude towards being photographed? 

Like most people, being photographed isn’t one of my favorite things, but if someone on the street asked me and was lugging a 4×5, I would HAVE to say yes to that.

What are you working on at the moment? 

I think I have Big Screen envy when I think of film as a purely entertainment medium compared to photography. I mean look, it has acting, writing, photography, music. So I at least had fun making a trailer for my recent book called COLLEGE.

Michael Jang – Website / Instagram.