Who Is Michael Jang? Image

Who Is Michael Jang?

By Michael Talbot-Haynes | June 10, 2024

COMING TO PBS! Who Is Michael Jang? is a fun documentary directed by Michael Jacobs in which the answer to the titular question keeps getting better and better. The film is set in San Francisco at the height of the pandemic. During this trying time, art installations of huge black-and-white photos from the 1970s were pasted onto the sides of buildings seemingly overnight. While many city dwellers had their minds blown, savvy members of the arts community recognized the work as being created by photographer Michael Jang.

The selected images are from a classic series Jang did with his family in 1973, showing Chinese Americans engaged in retro-American cultural activities. These public guerrilla gallery shows reignited interest in the photographer’s work due in part to their remarkable compositions. Their content, from journalistic shots to ground-zero documentation of the rise of punk, also helped compel people.

Who is Michael Jang? then introduces us to Chef Jang, a performance persona the artist sometimes uses for public art demonstrations. The chef wears a paper kitchen hat, apron, and dark glasses with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, causing mischief on the streets of San Francisco. It all fits into Jang’s anarchistic artistic impulses when representing the zany side of the modern Chinese American experience.

“…art installations of huge black-and-white photos from the 1970s were pasted onto the sides of buildings seemingly overnight.”

There is no shame to be had for not already being hip to the amazing photographer at the heart of the documentary. Jacobs shows a thousand different reasons why we have not heard of him prior to this. Ironically, the inherent humor that runs through his work stood in the way of it being recognized on a larger scale. Back in the 1970s, there was no room in the grim arena of high-art photography for anything funny. And the artist’s work is really funny.

Who is Michael Jang? also captures the mid-century world in fantastic detail. The subject doesn’t just have a photographer’s eye; he has 96 of them, all irising and clicking at once. Jang’s ability to catch that achingly perfect expression and angle is staggering. This is especially apparent when he got to shoot Johnny Rotten hours after The Sex Pistols broke up. This event sparked a chicken or egg question: Did the punk rock attitude influence Jang’s photography, or was his attitude what punk rock needed to really shine out? All the while, we get to spend time with Jang himself, who is the sweetest guy, as well as his friends and family.

The informational goodies the filmmaker centers on hit the fascination centers of your brain like a hundred pinballs. Who Is Michael Jang? has a legitimate question that you will be so glad you got an answer to. Whether it is due to his art or his antics, Michael Jang is a name that begs to be dived into by as many people as possible.

Who Is Michael Jang? (2024)

Directed and Written: Michael Jacobs

Starring: Michael Jang, Adrian Martinez, etc.

Movie score: 8.5/10

Who Is Michael Jang? Image

"…hit[s] the fascination centers of your brain like a hundred pinballs."

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