Interview with Michael Jang
Interview by Kehan Lai and Paloma Broussal-Lanusse
We know your book ‘Who Is Michael Jang?’ is coming out this September, but could you tell us in a few words, who is Michael Jang?
It’s complicated. Michael Jang is part Walter Mitty, having an overactive fantasy imagination; part Forrest Gump, he actually has met many people of note and regularly quotes his momma; part Zelig, he often appears unexplainably in newsworthy photos (see Instagram hashtag #whoismichaeljang) and lastly part Borat. He will most certainly prank you if given an opening.
What is it about the moment unfolding in front of you that interests you to take photographs? Are you looking for any decisive moments when you’re shooting?
Like Zen, it is not easy to explain. For me the emphasis is a state of mind toward emptiness in order to "see" less with the eyes and intellect and more with the heart and mind. In other words, I don't think about anything while I'm shooting.
You seem to have a kinship with flash photography. What are you looking to accomplish and say in the photos with the power of flash?
The use of flash is essentially for convenience. I use flash so all the camera settings are fixed, like exposure, focussing distance etc. There is nothing to do technically but click the shutter.
Your style is very different in B&W from color. Why is that?
If you switch my “color” images to black and white you will see that what I take pictures of and how it is done with the same approach. Only the choice of film is different.
Do you think that nowadays, the art market requires a piece of work to be backed up by heavy conceptual theories for them to be considered valuable? What are your ways to work around it considering the documentary nature of your work?
For the past forty years I have taken photographs for the pure enjoyment of it. I have not really participated in that art market environment so I have no experience with that. Some artists' work was discovered after they were gone so it was up to others to come up with "conceptual theories".
Are you working on any projects right now? Could you talk about them and how the theme has changed or carried on from your previous works.
At the moment I have been too busy just working on the book and retrospective. There is another project down the line and it will be incredible.
[Jang spent nearly four decades working as a successful commercial portrait photographer while, unbeknown to the world, he was assembling a vast archive of images documenting, variously: college days, Hollywood celebrities, would-be weather presenters, San Francisco street scenes, his family, Bay Area punks and adolescent garage bands. He kept this archive private for almost 40 years until he submitted in 2001 a number of images for consideration to San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art. His work attracted immediate acclaim, and for the past fifteen years he has revealed those images in a series of exhibitions and books.
Who Is Michael Jang? (Atelier Editions, September), introduced by long-time collaborator and SFMoMA curator emerita of photography, Sandra S. Phillips, is the artist's first retrospective monograph and will coincide with the opening of the exhibition 'Michael Jang's California' at McEvoy Foundation for the Arts in San Francisco on Sept 27.]
You can find more of Michael’s work here.