Over the past four decades, Michael Jang's photography has magnified lives that most will never experience. Since 2012, VICE has published Jang's unique family photos, candids from his time at Cal Arts, and off-kilter portraits of amateur weather reporters. Now, the Bay Area photographer is sharing a collection of images of San Francisco's punk scene in the 1970s he took while in grad school. The energy Jang captures within his subjects mirrors the blaring music that accompanied the scenes his photos depict. Although we don't have the good fortune to know what it feels like to juggle a camera and flash while at a Ramones show, Jang's work illustrates an intimate view of punk. In these photos you see punk as a raw, charged scene that could detonate at any moment, unlike the way it now tends to be depicted, behind glass or on a museum wall.
After 40 years of collecting dust in boxes, Jang is finally showcasing these photographs at a one-night pop-up show this Thursday at Beams' B Gallery in Tokyo.
VICE: Did you approach show photography the same way that you approached your street photography in the Bay Area?
Michael Jang: My personal history has gone through some interesting changes in the four or five decades of working. As a student in the 70s, my heroes were Friedlander and Winogrand. It was all about seeing through the viewfinder with an intensity that I can't quite get with an iPhone. Also, real darkroom prints were a part of the process. Going further, the endgame would be a show of perfectly printed and framed silver gelatin prints on white walls and maybe do a book. In the past several decades, I never really got around to all that. Because the times have changed and the audiences can access the work in ways not available before, I spend my time thinking up new ways for presentation. This particular event is all photocopy in terms of the zines and prints. I think it also fits perfectly with the punk aesthetic.
There are so many angles and perspectives in this body of work that are so specific to photographing a show. Were the shows you were going to a hard environment to take photos at?
I never thought about anything technical, except to respond to what was in front of me. Often when shooting live music, you feel and hear the music and think you are having a great time and therefore getting great shots. I was careful not to forget that the picture was the main event and that looking at the pictures later would not have the benefit of a soundtrack to make them better.
One of the photos in the series is of Johnny Rotten, just after the Sex Pistols' last show in 1978. How did you end up getting that shot?
I had seen the Sex Pistols' last show at Winterland in San Francisco. As a freelance photographer, I had a job the next morning to shoot the employee of the month at the Miyako Hotel at 10 AM. When I walked in, I saw Johnny in the bar area, smoking cigarettes and having some beers. He told me that they had just broken up.
What made you decide to keep these photos under wraps for so long?
Again, I did them for just the pure pleasure of it and didn't even think they would have any value. Sometimes in life we miss the significance of something when it's actually happening.
Do these pictures hold a particular meaning to you? Do they become more powerful over time?
It is a fun thing to reconnect with people through the photos almost four decades later. One person, Chip Kinman of the Dils, is still rockin'.
Do you have a favorite from the collection?
That's a tough one. If had I had to keep one, it might be the Bowie.
How do you feel about the work and the scene that you were a part of now, 40 years later?
I feel so fortunate to have done all this work initially as a hobby/passion, and for it to have a social and even artistic relevance 40 years later to an even wider audience is just beyond a dream come true.
More photos below.
Michael Jang will take place on Thursday, January 5, from 6–8 PM at B Gallery in Shinjuku, Tokyo. For more of Michael Jang's photography, follow him on Instagram.
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