Well respected SF-based photographer Michael Jang already has plenty of his work in museums, including the permanent collection of SFMOMA, and this year he's been pulling some work out of his own vault that documents the vibrant, chaotic punk scene of the late 1970s in San Francisco something he witnessed first-hand as a grad student at the San Francisco Art Institute. "The punk scene: That's where the juice was. And it matched my energy for what I wanted to do as a photographer," Jang explains in a 2015 interview with SFMOMA. "I wasn't really part of that scene. But I used my camera to get in." He took photos of some of the biggest names in punk, including the Sex Pistols at their last concert ever in 1978, at SF's Winterland Ballroom, and some intimate shots of Johnny Rotten and the rest of the band the morning after they broke up as they were leaving the Hotel Miyako in Japantown.
Jang grew up in Marysville in Northern California, got his bachelor's degree at Cal Arts in Los Angeles, and his MFA at the SF Art Institute. Stephen McLaren of the British Journal of Photography wrote, "If you had to invent a photographer who captured the essence of California in the 1970s and 80’s its exuberance and dubious fashion sense, its rebellious subcultures and obsessions with celebrity you would have to invent Michael Jang."
Some of the photos Jang took of the SF punk scene have been exhibited before, but many have spent "40 years... collecting dust in boxes" as he told Vice earlier this year, on the occasion of a pop-up exhibit of the photos and some hand-made 'zines by Jang in Tokyo in January.
Referring to an earlier batch of family photos that he sat on for years and just sold to SFMOMA in 2008, Jang said, "I'm the Rip van Winkle of photography. Thirty-five years later, I'm coming out and showing this stuff."
I asked Jang, 67, why he'd kept some of these punk photos under wraps for so long, and he said, "Punk recently had a 40th anniversary. I wanted to wait till its 50th but I figured I better get some of it out now in case I don’t make it."
Though he says "I wasn't so much into the big names, I was into the energy," he happened to be there when the big names performed in SF, and he ended up producing album cover photos of lesser known punk acts like Pearl Harbor and the Explosions and The Dils (see slideshow). "The shows were all memorable," Jang says. "I found a way to get backstage most of the time but only one person ever came up to me and actually started a conversation: Joey Ramone."
He says the bands that sprung up at the Art Institute also had "very loyal followings" and he just "naturally fell into" the scene because it was happening around him, with bands performing at parties in the painting studios with black plastic bags taped up over the walls to protect the art.
Now, on May 5 from 7 to 10 p.m., Jang will be doing another pop-up show at Seeing Things Gallery in San Jose (751 West San Carlos Street), which will be filled with hand-made 'zines, posters, Xerox prints, and photos, all for sale for $20 apiece. The show is called "Michael Jang Is No Fun," and he wanted it to reflect the DIY aesthetic of punk itself.
I asked Jang what the impetus for the show was, and he quoted Robert Frank, the 92-year-old American photographer, who said of a recent show of his own work on newsprint, "I want them cheap, quick, and dirty!"
Follow Jang on Instagram here.