CalArts in the ’70s: “When Art School Was Like Animal House”
In the early 1960s, Walt Disney opened the California Institute of the Arts in the Santa Clarita Valley, the first university of its kind to house both the visual and performing arts under one roof. What he wrought was a world of creative chaos that fostered experimentation, both artistically and recreationally, where Ravi Shankar could be found teaching a class down the hall from John Baldessari and debauchery was the status quo.
A young Michael Jang, who went on to achieve great success shooting subjects like Hendrix, Sinatra and Richard Pryor, was there to capture it all. The Chinese-American portrait photographer was a lanky kid with thick-framed glasses when he showed up at CalArts in 1971, a major change from his conservative childhood in a small, Northern California town. After taking a photography class as an elective, Jang bought himself a used Leica from a wedding photographer and began documenting art school antics as a sort of visual diary.
“I used the camera to interact a lot, to have something to do,” Jang says, talking over the phone from San Francisco. “Otherwise I would just be a wallflower. I used the camera to get myself into events and situations that I had no business being in.”
The shy student shot hundreds of photos of the art-fueled bacchanalia that surrounded him, during a time when psychedelia was in full swing. “High school was one thing, but college is the time where you can be who you are when you’re away from your parents,” Jang says. “I really got that there. It was like whoa.”
Jang never intended for anyone to see the photos until four decades later when he decided to publish them for the enjoyment of other alumni. The collection of previously unseen photographs became College, an unofficial yearbook for Jang’s CalArts class, which was published last year. It sold out immediately.
Motivated by the response, Jang continued to dig through his archives and started his first Instagram account to share his spoils with the world. He has since discovered photos of young David Hasselhoff and Paul Reubens, both performing arts students at the time who had yet to make it big. “I started doing this for my classmates who are in their 60s,” he says. “But then I found that the work seems to resonate with younger generations, which is something I didn’t expect.”
They might be drawn to the honesty and soul of Jang’s old-school film candids, taken during a time before every cellphone party snap became a ubiquitous, digitally manipulated personal branding product with a vintage filter. As Jang sees it, you lose a lot without the spontaneity. “It had a totally different meaning to be photographed back then,” Jang says. “We didn’t carry all these devices around. We were just living our lives.”