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Michael Jang's unseen images of 70s America

How the photographer snuck into Beverly Hills' most exclusive parties for college assignments

Los Angeles, 1971. America was experiencing colossal cultural & political change, change that would redefine the nation forever. For Michael Jang and the Cal Arts photography department however, 1971 was more about endless summerʼs days and young foreverʼs dawns. Jang was 20 and easily distracted. Photography wasnʼt his scene, but graduation was, so he started devising imaginative ways to fulfil his class assignments. 

Obtaining questionable press passes to attend exclusive events at the Beverly Hilton and scanning the classifieds of the L.A. Times for eclectic conventions & gatherings, Jang began amassing hundreds and hundreds of extraordinary images, only to forget about them entirely for decades.

Jang continued practicing as a commercial photographer, revealing nothing of his vast & ever expanding archive until 2003, when he submitted a number of images for consideration to San Franciscoʼs Museum of Modern Art. They attracted immediate international acclaim, and for the past decade Jang has continued to unveil his considerable portfolio in a series of exhibitions and monographs, among them College, his latest collection.

Dazed Digital: Tell us why you first came to pursue photography?

Michael Jang: When it came time to enter college I was accepted into Cal Arts, where I took my first photography class. But they didnʼt know where to put me, so I was allowed to pursue whatever I wanted. With my smalltown background I was interested in, but too intimidated to take, film school classes. Joining a still photography class seemed like a better fit, so thatʼs how it all started.

DD: how did you capture some of your more iconic images?Man your images document exclusive society events at the Beverly Hilton society, photographing American celebrities & musician? 

Michael Jang: As a kid growing up in 1950s America, three channels on a black-and-white TV were my entire connection to the world outside my little town. Imagine finding yourself, years later, as a college student, camera in hand, seeing David Bowie signing autographs outside the Beverly Hilton. Or hearing that Frank Sinatra was right inside, receiving an award. One evening I followed some waiters through a side door leading into the Hiltonʼs kitchen, and eventually found myself in the ballroom itself. I sat down at a table with a few open seats. Turns out it was for the press, but they got on to me real fast. All the official press photographers conspired to let the Hilton banquet manager know, I wasnʼt one of them. After I found out that every weekend, celebrities and high society held parties there, I had to make that my semester project. And going back each week, and getting thrown out, time after time, I had my teacher write me a letter so I could gain entry inside. This worked a few more times, until the end of the semester. And then I was done.

“I learned to anticipate. And these practice images were my scales, my sketches; all done daily, and forgotten”

DD: Is the exhilaration of infiltrating, & the acquiring of intimacy, just as necessary or compelling, as capturing images themselves for you?

Michael Jang: I spend most of my time a shut in. I rarely venture out. I used to think that if I didnʼt go out and take pictures, I would be a complete recluse. If you look at my photos, you might think Iʼm very sociable, and my life is full of laughter. A case could be made that I use the camera to compensate for a world without a lot of contact, or intimacy, by going out and photographing it, even if just for an instant.

DD: Your imagery lay unseen for almost forty years, before being acquired by San Francisco’s MOMA. What lead you to reveal your vast archive?

Michael Jang: Since so much of my photography was done simply as homework, I didnʼt take it seriously and just boxed it away for decades. Then I heard that the museum had a portfolio drop-off day for the public, and I left them two student projects Iʼd done in the early 1970ʼs. It was something of a wake-up call, that maybe I should start going through the forty years of work Iʼve completed since then, and begin the archiving process.

DD: Tell us about your latest monograph College.

Michael Jang: The images in College were never intended to be even seen, let alone compiled into a book. Walking around the halls of Cal Arts, I would often hear musicians practicing at all hours of the day, behind closed doors. They were always working. There was dedication. Painters, dancers, and most of the students from the other schools, were all pursuing full days. 

I noticed that the photographers, however, would plan an outing or two a week, then go out and maybe take pictures for a few hours. The rest of the time was spent in the darkroom; developing negatives, making contact sheets, then ultimately, making prints for a class critique, comprising our week of ʻworkʼ.

The whole process was necessary, but I felt that actually spending more time shooting was more important for growth, than doing darkroom work. To be at the same level of dedication then, as those other students, I began to have my camera with me at all times, shooting everything; college life, school dances, the local neighbourhood, just like a musician practicing compositions. I learned to anticipate. And these practice images were my scales, my sketches; all done daily, and forgotten.

Michael Jangʼs latest collection, College, is available now through Hamburger Eyes