Michael Jang’s California

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Robert Cornelius may have invented the “selfie” in 1839, but a 20-year-old Michael Jang really nailed it in 1973. Looking unreasonably dapper in a black suit and dark sunglasses, the then 20 year old snapped this photo of himself on a street corner in San Francisco’s Financial District, a fitting capture for the soon-to-become prolific photographer.

The portrait would become the raison d’etre for the Chinese American artist, who would go onto lead a successful commercial portrait practice. But it was his other photos, his snaps of life on the streets of Los Angeles and San Francisco of everything from the burgeoning punk scene to poetry readings in now-forgotten bookstores to his aunts all wearing goofy sunglasses, that dominate the retrospective going up at the McEvoy Foundation for the Arts later this month.

You’ll see now-familiar faces like Johnny Rotten, Ronald Reagan, and David Bowie photographed unawares (Jang had a knack for showing up at the right place at the right time), but also strangers of every demographic imaginable, just enjoying (or not enjoying) their lives on the streets of California. There are heavy moments like Harvey Milk’s body being gurneyed out of City Hall, and lighter moments, like all of his aunts and uncles dressed up like Santas.

Jang apparently went everywhere with a camera, and took a genuine delight in photographing people in all of their hilarious and heartbreaking complexity. “Michael has always been interested in human beings, their nature, their qualities and their aspirations,” says Sandra Phillips, curator emerita of photography at SFMOMA, who recently acquired 30 of Jang’s pieces for their permanent collection.

Michael Jang’s California will be up in the McEvoy Foundation for the Arts from September 27 2019 to January 18, 2020.