Michael Jang and a friend had driven down to Los Angeles when, on a fluke, they decided to take photos outside of the storied Beverly Hilton. And that’s when the young art student caught a lucky break.
‘The first time we saw (David) Bowie out front signing autographs and that was it,’ Jang recalled.
‘It’ was a college photography project shot in and outside the famed hotel in the early 1970s that captured Bowie during his Ziggy Stardust phase, an award ceremony for Frank Sinatra that the then-Governor of California Ronald Reagan attended, and the ladies of high society getting out of their cars and limos.
For decades, the black-and-white images that Jang snapped at the Hilton and around Los Angeles were tucked away with other photos he had taken in San Francisco and other parts of California – of his extended family, during his college years, street shots – throughout the unsettled 1970s and the high-flying ’80s. In the early 2000s, ‘on a lark,’ Jang dropped off the pictures at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for consideration, and the rest, as he told DailyMail.com, is ‘ongoing history.’
Since then, Jang has had major exhibitions and the photos are now featured in a new book, Who Is Michael Jang?, which includes images of cultural significance, such as Bowie, the Ramones in concert, and women wearing Planet of the Apes masks.
Important moments and events, including the 1978 funeral of George Moscone, the mayor of San Francisco who was shot along with Harvey Milk, and the 50th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1987 have also been captured.
In the early 1970s, Michael Jang was a young art student who happened to enroll in a photography elective. After driving into Los Angeles, he and a friend decided to take pictures around the storied Beverly Hilton, home to the Golden Globes. ‘The first time we saw (David) Bowie out front signing autographs and that was it,’ he told DailyMail.com. Autograph seekers told the college student the posh hotel often held events, and Jang spent the semester taking photos outside and inside the Hilton – even fashioning a fake press pass for access. Above, an image titled David Bowie Signing Autographs, 1973. The superstar was in his Ziggy Stardust phase
Jang took many black-and-white photos of California throughout the 1970s and ’80s, but tucked them away in boxes. Planet of the Apes was a successful film released in 1968 that has permeated the culture. Above, two women in an image titled Planet of the Apes Beauty Contest, Century City, 1973. Jang told DailyMail.com that he probably looked at the calendar for Los Angeles events in the newspaper. ‘Visually it sounded fun,’ he said. ‘That’s a picture that I really never thought was all that good but it’s a funny thing… you just wait a few decades. You have to get out of the way sometimes of your own self and your own work’
In the early 2000s, Jang decided to drop off the images at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for consideration. He said he wasn’t expecting anything but the museum’s curators called him, and the black-and-white photos, like the one above titled Golden Gate Bridge Fiftieth Anniversary, 1987, are now part of Who Is Michael Jang?, a new book. The above photo ended up being a mural at the museum. ‘A picture like that now would look a lot different,’ he told DailyMail.com. ‘You know, you have almost a few hundred thousand people on the bridge in the moment just enjoying themselves. Not thinking about “Well, I have to get a shot of me and post it”‘
Jang had different techniques to gain entry into the Beverly Hilton and events being held there: a fake press pass, sneaking into the hotel’s back doors, and a teacher’s letter stating that he was working on a class project. Above, an image titled Frank Sinatra, March of Dimes ‘Man of the Year,’ 1973. ‘I was the only photographer in there,’ he recalled of the image, which also includes then-Governor of California Ronald Reagan and the comedian Milton Berle. After he took the shot, he was basically kicked out, and Jang recalled with a laugh that they didn’t believe he wasn’t going to sell the photo
The night that Jang saw and then snapped shots of Bowie, who was a la mode for the ’70s with his suit jacket’s wide lapel and large tie, he asked the autograph seekers what was going on at the Hilton. Those who sought the signatures of the famous told him that the swanky hotel hosted major events and parties every Saturday night, which were on a list in the lobby.
‘And I looked at it, and I thought to myself, well, “Here’s a semester worth of a project,”‘ Jang, now 68, told DailyMail.com. ‘So that’s how it started.’
Jang had enrolled in a photography elective while he was a student at the California Institute of the Arts, which is known as CalArts. While he can’t remember what initially spurred him to take the class, he said: ‘At the time, it was just something new offered to a little kid from a town of 10,000 people.’
Born in 1951, Jang grew up in Marysville, a town that was part of the Gold Rush in Northern California. His grandparents emigrated from China to the state, and ‘both of his parents were born in San Francisco. His grandfather, a businessman, originally opened a store in Sacramento, but was forced to close it during the Depression. The family then moved to Marysville for a new beginning,’ according to the book, Who is Michael Jang?, which is published by Atelier Editions.
At CalArts, he noted that the library was populated with books of photographers and he had a teacher that exposed him to the work of Lee Friedlander, Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand. ‘That was enough for me to just really have something to sink my teeth into,’ he recalled. ‘I ended up being, I guess, a West Coast photographer doing that kind of style.’
When he started going to Hilton, Jang noticed a few things, including that the paparazzi had a drill with the rich and famous.
‘The routine is the celebrities arrive in their limos, they get out, the press curiously gives them a moment to straighten out their clothes and stand there for an official picture. Snap, boom, done, they walk off,’ he said. ‘I wasn’t satisfied with that. I wanted to know what was going on inside.’
So he fashioned a fake press pass.
‘If you’re a street photographer, you just walk around and occasionally, you will come up to some kind of line or obstruction that you can’t get past: a gate, a guard. And I thought, well, what do I need to get past this and I figured a press pass might be a good way to do it.’
Despite never seeing one, Jang said he took a picture of himself, reduced it, copied the mastheads of publications such as the San Francisco Chronicle, scribbled an illegible name of an ‘editor,’ and then laminated it.
In addition to the Beverly Hilton series, Jang also took photographs of his extended family in the early 1970s. According to the book, Who is Michael Jang?, when he took a class during the summer in San Francisco, he stayed nearby with his aunt, uncle and cousins. ‘Uncle Monroe and Aunt Lucy and their children were eccentric jokers, always having fun. They were very much like any other middle class American family of that time and place – but more so. They were like an advertisement for a typical suburban family; like characters from some television series that unfortunately never got produced,’ according to the book. Above, an image titled Lucy Watering At Night, 1973
When Jang shot outside of the Beverly Hilton, he took note of the routine that the paparazzi had with celebrities when they arrived at the hotel in their limos. ‘They get out, the press curiously gives them a moment to straighten out their clothes and stand there for an official picture. Snap, boom, done, they walk off,’ he recalled. For the above image, Woman Arriving In Rolls Royce, 1973, Jang said: ‘You can tell I didn’t give her time to get ready. So I was a little annoying to the press people because I didn’t go by the rules’
‘I’ve said before that it really was a perfect storm,’ he told DailyMail.com about his 1973 series called The Jangs. Because they were his extended family – his aunt, uncle and cousins – Jang was able to get close and capture intimate moments. The series depicts a suburban family in California during the early 1970s. It includes the above image, which is titled Study Hall, 1973, that shows the family reading and hiding behind comics and magazines – Archie, MAD and TV – with snacks on the table
After he graduated from CalArts in 1973, Jang then got a master of fine arts from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1977. He said he realized he was done with school, needed work and turned to commercial photography. But along the way, Jang continued to shoot for himself. Above, an image titled Ramones Free Concert, Civic Center Plaza, 1979, which took place in San Francisco. The punk band reportedly got the inspiration for their name from Paul McCartney, who used the name Paul Ramon when he checked into hotels
He said that it seemed to work. ‘I don’t recall anyone ever looking at it and saying this is fake, go away. But also I will say, you have to size up where you’re going, you know.’
Case in point, a photo that he took of Frank Sinatra, who was receiving a ‘man of the year’ award from the nonprofit March of Dimes in 1973. In the image, Ol’ Blue Eyes seems to be slightly bowing to applause while Ronald Reagan and comedian Milton Berle clapped off to the side.
‘I was the only photographer in there,’ he said. After taking the picture, he was asked to leave, and Jang laughed as he recalled that they didn’t believe that he wasn’t going to sell the image.
Sometimes he had to resort sneaking into the hotel’s back doors. And, at one point, he even got his teacher to write him a letter explaining that the images were for a school art project.
CalArts is in Santa Clarita, north of LA, and Jang said he and a friend would drive into the city to take pictures. ‘The Sunset Strip and just the whole Hollywood Boulevard in the ’70s was just to die for in terms of visualness,’ he said.
Jang also took photos around Hollywood at places like the Palladium, where he snapped several images of couples at a Lawrence Welk Dance.
‘These were probably regular folks, you know, who just dressed up for a night on the town and went out dancing. And I found that more refreshing and even interesting,’ Jang said.
In addition to the Beverly Hilton series, Jang also took photographs of his extended family in the early 1970s. According to the book, Who is Michael Jang?, when he took a class during the summer in San Francisco, he stayed nearby with his aunt, uncle and cousins.
‘Uncle Monroe and Aunt Lucy and their children were eccentric jokers, always having fun. They were very much like any other middle class American family of that time and place – but more so. They were like an advertisement for a typical suburban family; like characters from some television series that unfortunately never got produced,’ according to the book.
‘I’ve said before that it really was a perfect storm,’ he told DailyMail.com about the 1973 series called The Jangs.
When Jang was taking photos of his extended family in the early 1970s, he said he didn’t think of them as droll pictures. ‘It’s just the way I saw things,’ he told DailyMail.com. ‘It’s just one of those things where I didn’t think too much when I was doing art back then because, as I said, I wasn’t a serious fine art photography school of student. I was having fun with it.’ Photography was often serious, he explained, with people looking glum or with stiff body language. Above, an image titled Living Room Scene, 1973
While Jang was shooting at the Beverly Hilton, he was also looking in the newspaper for events that were happening around Los Angeles. He saw that Lawrence Welk was giving a dance and bought a ticket. ‘I grew up watching this guy on TV, let me see what’s going on,’ Jang recalled. For over 25 years, the musician and bandleader hosted the Lawrence Welk Show. Jang took the above image, titled Couple at the Lawrence Welk Dance, 1973, at the Hollywood Palladium. He said: ‘I call it Hollywood Gothic’
Jang spent years working as a commercial photographer. ‘I did anything you could do with a camera to earn a living,’ he told DailyMail.com. He worked for a TV station, a bank and a law firm, and took headshots as well as photos at weddings and bar mitzvahs. He also took family portraits. Now 68, he has found success with photos that he took during the 1970s and ’80s, including a series on his extended family called The Jangs. Above, the joy is clear in an image titled Aunts and Uncles, 1973
‘I was on the inside as they were my cousins and I stayed with them that summer that I took the workshop with Lisette Model, who was Diane Arbus’ teacher,’ Jang told DailyMail.com. The class was in San Francisco and Jang was from a different part of California called Marysville. ‘I happened to have a Leica and a flash and taking this course with her and I knew the history of photography so I wasn’t totally naive in terms of what had been done. So when you combined all those three for that wonderful summer, the result is The Jangs.’ Above, an image titled Holiday Preparations, 1973
Because they were his family, Jang was able to get close and the result is a depiction of suburbia during the early 1970s: the family reading and hiding behind comics and magazines – Archie, MAD and TV – with snacks on the table; his aunt Lucy watering the flowers and yard at night; and a gathering in the living room that shows the parents reading, the daughter on the phone, and the son on what appears to be an inflatable boat.
‘The humor is natural,’ Jang said in 2015 interview.
He told DailyMail.com recently: ‘I kind of wonder if I take pictures that are humorous because that’s the way I see things or because the subject is… humorous in and of it itself. Maybe it’s a combination of the two. When I was shooting back in the ’70s, I didn’t think of them as funny pictures… It’s just the way I saw things.
‘It’s just one of those things where I didn’t think too much when I was doing art back then because, as I said, I wasn’t a serious fine art photography school student. I was having fun with it.’
After graduating from CalArts in 1973, Jang then got a master of fine arts from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1977. He said he realized he was done with school, needed work and turned to commercial photography.
‘I did anything to earn a living so I worked for a TV station, a bank, a law firm, doing primarily headshots and things like that,’ he said.
But along the way, Jang also shot photos for himself. For example, when commissioned to take photos of a local TV crew covering the 50th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1987, Jang recalled: ‘I ended up just being there for the whole thing from pre-dawn to noon and shooting that.’
The anniversary photo later became a 20-foot mural in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art when it reopened after a renovation, he said.
For years, the photos he took during the 1970s and ’80s were in boxes until Jang decided to submit them to the museum sometime in the early 2000s.
‘Occasionally I would come across them,’ he said. ‘It was just the time of my life where I was done raising my family, you know, the kids were up and gone to college and I had time. And I was in my early 50s and I just in the back of my mind remembered that you could drop pictures off at the museum and they would have to look at it. And so I thought, “What I have got to lose?”‘
Jang said he wasn’t expecting anything but then the museum’s curators called him. The images that had been shown in a high school hallway, at a local camera store and a coffee shop have now been part of major museum exhibitions.
‘From zero to a 100 overnight,’ Jang said of his success. ‘To have the work seen and viewed differently, you know, decades later is really kind of a dream come true.’
The California Institute of the Arts, which is known as CalArts, was founded in 1961 and was the merger of two institutions. Walt Disney had a hand in its founding and it was also a training ground for Disney animators. Jang attended the school in the early 1970s, and after he graduated in 1973, he also earned a master of fine arts from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1977. He said the hardest part was getting into the schools, but that once you were a student, there was a tremendous amount of freedom. He said he ‘was left to my own devices to take pictures.’ Above, a photo, titled Kylo Kylo Playing Trumpet With Sami Campbell Watching Outside the CalArts Dorm, 1973
George Moscone started his term as mayor of San Francisco in January 1976. The next year, Harvey Milk, who was openly gay, was elected to the city’s Board of Supervisors. Another member of the board, Dan White, who had resigned but wanted his old seat back, shot and killed both Moscone and Milk on November 27, 1978. White was angry that Moscone would not appoint him to his old position. Moscone was 49. Milk, who became a gay icon and was the subject of a 2008 biopic film, was 48. Above, an image titled Onlookers at the George Moscone Funeral, 1978
The tumult of the 1960s continued into the ’70s, a decade in which the nation faced inflation, low economic growth and gas shortages at the pump. Richard Nixon resigned as president on August 4, 1974 after the Watergate scandal, and the war in Vietnam finally ended. Michael Jang was a young art student who took images in and around San Francisco, Los Angeles and around California. His work is now part of Who Is Michael Jang?, a new book published by Atelier Editions. Above, an image titled Self-Portrait, Financial District San Francisco, 1973. Jang is wearing the black sunglasses in the right of the frame