If there was ever an academic space that combined a Woodstock party sensibility with the clever pragmatism of an indelible business magnate, it was the California Institute of the Arts in the 1970s. Established in the early 1960s by Walt Disney himself, Cal Arts was set up with an almost utopian vision: an all-encompassing arts university that borrowed its best practices from trade schools. What followed sounds almost unreal today. Ravi Shankar sat as a chair of the music department, the likes of John Lasseter, Paul Reubens, and Tim Burton attended.
Michael Jang, a portrait photographer known for snapping luminaries from William Burroughs, to Alice Walker, and Jimi Hendrix, didn’t know what he stumbled upon when he arrived at the Cal Arts campus as a young student in 1971. With his Leica glued to him, Jang kept a photographic diary of his time at Cal Arts, capturing the revelry, discovery, and tedium of an art student’s life. Jang explains to Nerve: “These pictures were taken while a student at Calarts in the early seventies. At the time, they weren’t done for class assignments or for any exhibition or book. I was just experiencing college life away from home and had my camera with me most of the time for making a visual diary. Now, forty years later, I am going through all the original negatives (Tri-X taken with a Leica M2) and am making the work available.”
This work, now being gradually unveiled through Jang’s first-ever Instagram account, uncovers moments of playful hedonism, private exchanges between lovers and dancers, and images of artists coming into their own. His series serves as a send-up to the period in life in which our identity stumbles, interests sharpen, the beer always flows, and fun seems bottomless: college. Some notable faces like Michael Richards, Ravi Shankar, and David Hasselhoff filter in between shots of nude and drunken nights, campus wanderings, and students recording passionately in the classroom.
The fabled bacchanalia of the ’70s is a time today’s hipsters all yearn for, but are never really sure existed. Jang’s photos stand like isolated time capsules, preserving everyday moments that become monumental with their authenticity. Borrowing from street photography style, the shots are unmanicured, vernacular, and raw. They read like an off-the-cuff yearbook that captures the vivacity and candidness of real youth.
Photography was rapidly changing in the 1970s, with focus drifting away from pure technique toward a more aesthetically expansive position. Artists asked themselves: what can I take a photograph of and why is it significant? Photographers like William Eggleston and Garry Winogrand reclaimed the experimental medium for the museums. They added candids and they added color. Snapshots could finally be considered fine art; it became acceptable for young men and women to study photography as a serious trade. Jang borrows from that school of thought, but his shots also shine with the gift of timing and intuition.
David Bowie, signing autographs.
Rediscovering photographs is not something that’s done often in 2014. We don’t have to anymore. Even relics of the past — baby photos, awkward prom portraits — are collected and resurfaced for social consumption. Throwback Thursdays — #tbt — are hashtagged through Instagram and Twitter, to remain seen, to be kept at the surface on someone’s stream. Jang’s photography throws a bit further back. By posting these previously unseen images, Jang is making his private diary a public one. What might once have been a joke between he and his peers, who are now in their sixties, is cultural folklore come to life.
“[It] makes me think about how being photographed is different now. Then, you most likely never saw pictures of yourself if taken by someone else. We’re talking film here. Developing negatives, making contact sheets, then serious darkroom time making prints. Now an image taken is instantly shared on a number of media platforms. This has to have an effect on the way people see themselves in regards to photography,” Jang says. His photographs were taken at a time when composition and the subject were paramount, when people didn’t automatically see a photograph of themselves as soon as it was taken, or maybe ever. Now they’re alive again on the platform of instant gratification. In this way, if Instagram existed in 70s, these photographs may never have.
Michael Richards, of Seinfeld fame.
“When I look at Allen Ginsberg’s photographic record [also rediscovered almost thirty years after being taken] of his beat life with Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and others, I get that sense of picture taking simply as part of their daily lives,” Jang explains. “At the time they were just taken without the thought of fame or financial gain. They are a wonderful collection and it’s a privilege to be a viewer into that world.”
Jang might have just unearthed hundreds of photographic treasures of a lost and often glamorized period, but he remains modest. “I was just twenty when I made these pictures, but perhaps someday people will have a similar feeling towards them.”
Ravi Shankar, sitar legend. He was a music professor at Cal Arts.
Photographer Michael Jang, as a student.