The only thing that bugs me about San Francisco photographer Michael Jang’s beautiful new monograph, “Who Is Michael Jang?,” is the title.
What bothers me isn’t the title’s accuracy. The book, which was published to coincide with this weekend’s opening of Jang’s first major retrospective, “Michael Jang’s California,” at the McEvoy Foundation for the Arts, is likely to be many people’s introduction to his joyous, happily bonkers work.
But Jang is nearly 70 years old now.
I’m a little annoyed that it’s taken this long for him to receive the love — the big gallery show, the splashy publication, the breathless write-ups in Aperture and the New Yorker and the Financial Times — that he deserved 40 years ago.
We had a discussion about this over email this week.
“Time is relative,” Jang wrote me. “I never expected this, so it feels rather natural. I am happy though that it has happened in my lifetime and that my 94-year-old mom could see it. My kids are proud, too.”
It’s nice that Jang is more sanguine than I am about the length of time it’s taken the world to catch up to his work.
From his earliest photos, it’s very clear that Jang, who studied at California Institute of the Arts and the San Francisco Art Institute, was a fearsome talent. Many of the projects featured in his retrospective — “Summer Weather,” a collection of headshots of would-be TV weather reporters; “Beverly Hilton,” a look at celebrities and politicians engaging in awkward celebration at that hotel; and above all “The Jangs,” an uproarious, loving portrait of Jang’s extended Chinese American family in Pacifica — were shot in the 1970s and 1980s, when he was starting out.
The photos check all of the boxes for excellent form. Everything is perfectly composed in each frame; every shot captures what Henri Cartier-Bresson called “the decisive moment” when one ephemeral moment crystallizes into a complete narrative. But even more important, they show that Jang has always been in command of a singular perspective.
He’s a jokester — every one of his photos has something to make you laugh, and some of them explode with fun — but he’s also a humanist, someone who appreciates the absurdity of his subjects because it helps his viewers see them with magnanimity.
“When I take a picture, I lock into this visual zone and am responsible for every single object and its placement with the frame,” Jang wrote. “That’s a lot to do within a split second, so I operate with no ideas or intention unless it is subconscious.”
Let’s talk about that subconscious, then. One of the reasons why it’s taken so long for Jang to get the recognition he deserves is that he kept his personal archive to himself for many years.
He shot his own projects, in San Francisco and farther afield, for decades, while developing a successful career as a commercial photographer. Weddings, portraits, bar mitzvahs, magazines — Jang embraced the grind of making a living, the grind that many art photographers might find degrading. He just tried to keep his head on straight while he did it.
“Often your vision can become antiseptic,” Jang wrote. “You unconsciously start cleaning everything up. It’s too tempting to take out the wrinkles.”
So he tried to take on as many assignments as possible that allowed him to keep his own style. (“Summer Weather,” the set of forecaster headshots that stumbles beautifully into the surreal, was one such commercial project.)
He also made a point of shooting events that couldn’t hide their messiness — punk shows, beauty contests, the public funeral of San Francisco’s assassinated mayor George Moscone.
The photos were as great then as they are now, but for whatever reason — humility? uncertainty? the understandable desire to avoid fame and its demands? — he kept them to himself.
In 2001, he went back through his archives. Something in his subconscious shifted. He submitted a portfolio to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. What happened next was like a tale out of Dickens: Sandra Phillips, then a photographer curator at SFMOMA, saw them and immediately recognized what she was looking at. His work began to circulate, first among curators and photography nuts, then into national and international exhibitions.
Now Michael Jang has officially made his way into the larger art world. Ed Ruscha showed up for a sneak peek at the exhibit this week, for crying out loud.
At the end of our correspondence, I asked Jang if he had any advice for young San Francisco photographers who are just starting out. I figured his answer would help me answer my own spin on his monograph title — who is Michael Jang, now that he’s famous?
The answer, to judge from his response? Michael Jang is pretty much the same person.
“My advice to them is that they should just work,” he wrote. “And save it!”
“Michael Jang’s California”: Opening reception 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 28. On view through Jan. 18. 10 am.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday. McEvoy Foundation for the Arts, 1150 25th St., Building B, S.F. 415-580-7605. www.mcevoyarts.org