Michael Jang's Family Photos Are Better Than Yours
May 7 2013
Last time we checked in with Michael Jang, he was showing us his hilarious portraits of would-be weather men and women. Last Thursday, Michael pulled more gems out of the archives when his new solo show, The Jangs, opened at the Stephen Wirtz Gallery in San Fransisco. This time, we see intimate and hilarious shots of Michael's own extended family, taken in California in the 1970s while he was a student at Cal Arts. These pictures are far from your average family snapshots; in fact, they were just purchased by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. We had a quick chat with Michael to talk about his very photogenic family.
VICE: What made you start photographing your family?
Michael Jang: It wasn't planned. I was in the San Francisco Bay Area taking a summer workshop with Lisette Model, who was known as Diane Arbus's teacher. I assumed I would be doing street photography for the class, as I had been influenced by Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand, as well as Arbus. I needed a place to stay for the summer and was able to stay at a relative's house, who I soon discovered were a wealth of material. From that point on, I was always with a camera with other family and at holiday get-togethers.
Family photographs are usually so vernacular and boring. How did you keep it so interesting? Is your family just kind of nuts?
They're nuts. But in all fairness, if someone else were to have photographed us, there probably would have been a completely different tone. Maybe it's just how I see the world.
How did you end up taking that photograph of Imogen Cunningham?
I was at the San Francisco Art Institute and there was a class field trip to Imogen's house early one day. Being a not-so-together 20-something, I showed up around four in the afternoon, but Imogene was cool. She said I might as well come in. I had some Jang prints with me, and she said she'd like to take a portrait of my aunt Lucy. That's how we ended up in her living room for tea.
What did photographing your family reveal to you about them in particular?
I don't think that way. Maybe if I was a writer, it would be clearer. But these are photographs, and isn't it fair to just say, "Look at the pictures?"
Very fair. Many of the photographs seem in line with street photography, in that they are taken at the perfect or "decisive" moment of the action. It seems like you just took the ethos and practices of a street photographer, but just never left the house. The fact that you didn't need to is a testament to your skill. Would you agree? How did those photographers and ideas influence your work?
There are some classic sayings like "Happiness is in your own backyard" or "It was right under my nose the whole time." If I were to have any skill—and thank you for the compliment—it might be being able to see what often becomes invisible to us after years and years of taking people and objects for granted.
What made you show the work now, so many years later?
Well, besides just wanting to have a kick-ass time in my 60s, I think it's time that the work be out there.
For more of Michael's work, check out his website.
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