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Michael Jang's Vintage Family Photos

Candid shots of the photographer's Chinese-American family in the '70s on show in LA

by Julie Wolfson
on 16 May 2014
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While SF-based photographer Michael Jang has taken famous black-and-white shots of Jimi Hendrix, Ronald Reagan and David Bowie, he's become well-known for doing what people do everyday all over the world: taking photos of their family. Jang began documenting his relatives in the summer of 1973, in Pacifica, California, when he was a student at the California Institute of the Arts. Jang spent the summer documenting the lives of his Aunt Lucy, Uncle Monroe, and cousins. Later he began taking photos of his extended family. Jang kept the images private for many years until in 2003, when he submitted some of them to San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art. The museum then acquired several photos from The Jangs series for their permanent collection.

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In one image, adults, kids and pets all share a room lounging, talking on the phone and reading while in another a boy wears a Santa beard and hat. Some photos show boys sitting in front of a wall of layered with posters of professional football players or with a record collection. Jang reveals the jovial spirit of his family by capturing moments of laughter, dancing and playful dress-up. The images are all black and white, yet the colorful nature of the characters and clothing come through with vibrant energy. He's described these photographs in an interview as "an often humorous look into the life of an Asian family trying to assimilate into the American mainstream of the '70s." Jang is also known for his own atypical, humorous approach to everyday things, including his former portfolio website, which he set up to mimic a Google Search page.

Since that time The Jangs series has garnered a following for being an entertaining and endearing portrayal of the life of a Chinese family in the '70s. And now, for the first time ever, a catalogue—The Jangs X Los Angeles"—will be available for purchase. Designed by the Berlin based Capucine Labarthe, the 48-page catalogue (available in a first edition of just 400) was published and directed by Pascale Georgiev and Kingston Trinder, and was printed at Milk Digital Los Angeles on 100% recycled paper.

We spoke with the photographer about bringing these images back to LA for "The Jangs X Los Angeles" and exhibiting them there for the first time.

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What originally drew you to photographing your family?

We all take pictures of our family, but we don’t all have a Leica and study the History of Photography in college. That’s where it all started. I needed something to photograph and began to see how strange things could be right at home with easy access. That’s always a plus when taking on a project.

How did your images from that summer develop into the whole series? Did you ever direct any of your family members or purely document their natural activities?

You never want to say, “Hold that right there” because then the moment is really gone and you’re just trying to save it because you missed it in the first place. I tried to be ready all the time and anticipate. Certainly there was cooperation or posing at times. That’s not something I dwell on. A good picture is a good picture.

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As I know, there isn’t any documentation of Chinese in the '70s looking like the Brady Bunch.
Why do you think people find these images of your family compelling?

Well for one, as far as I know, there isn’t any documentation of Chinese in the '70s looking like the Brady Bunch. Humor is rare in the fine art world.

What prompted you to reveal the family images in 2003?

I had three decades in a box. It was time to get out and see if the world would be receptive.

Who are some of the photographers that inspire you?

There is a lineage that I absorbed in art school that is Atget, Evans and Frank. Throw in some Friedlander, Arbus, Winogrand and Eggleston, and you have all that you need.

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How do you feel about showing these images of your family in Los Angeles at KesselsKramer and where they are located in Chinatown on Chung King Road?

The Jangs in Chinatown, isn’t that great? And I hear the exterior of the place still has a vintage look with a Happy Lion Arts and Gifts marquee.

How did you approach putting together the catalogue? How did you organize the image?

This whole project was a result of meeting the great team of Pascale Georgiev and Kingston Trinder. I felt that if this was to be a true collaboration I would give them free reign with the show’s concept, catalog and design. It’s a recontextualization of images made 40 years ago for today.

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The first edition of "The Jangs X Los Angeles" is currently available online for $16.

"The Jangs X Los Angeles" will be on view at KesselsKramer (963 Chung King Road, LA) from 17 May through 13 June 2014. The opening reception is on Saturday, 17 May, from 7PM.

Images courtesy of Michael Jang

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