Los Angeles is often characterized as a city that perpetually recreates itself, forgetting its own past in the process, but three series of recently unearthed photographs provide a glimpse of L.A. forty years ago.
Michael Jang was a student at CalArts shortly after its founding in the early 1970’s, where he shot the parties, performances, and portraits of his fellow students with his Leica. He went on to become a respected portrait photographer, but this very early body of work had remained unseen until last year, when San Francisco-based photo publisher Hamburger Eyes put out the collection in a now out-of-print volume titled College. Fortunately, he has recently posted over 100 of these snaps on his instagram. Jang’s photos capture the freedom and fun that characterized the fledgling art school in the days before the “CalArts Mafia” had left their mark. His images show shaggy-haired and wide-eyed students in various states of undress, alongside faculty members like John Baldessari and Ravi Shankar, and notable alums like Paul Rubens and David Hasselhoff. Surprisingly, Jang’s photos are in the collections of a few museums, including SF MoMA, but none in SoCal.
In 1979, Matt Sweeney was a 17-year old high school drop out who had just moved to L.A. to make it as a filmmaker. His big plans didn’t pan out, but for four years he documented the everyday Hollywood street scenes around him on stunning Kodachrome64 slides. “I went to Hollywood to ‘make it’, but didn’t,” Sweeney told the Atlantic, “and ended up taking pictures of Hollywood, capturing scenes of others ‘not making it’ as well.” This is not the glamorous Hollywood of starlets and leading men, but one of faded beauty featuring the elderly, vagabonds, punks, and bus riders, often rendered in a golden haze. His work recalls other chroniclers of American street life like William Eggleston and Stephen Shore, who brought artistic legitimacy to color photography. Like Jang, Sweeney had not shared these photos until now, and has recently started scanning and posting them to his tumblr.
Photographer Jo Ann Callis found her artistic calling later in life than Jang or Sweeney. In 1973, she was a single mother in her 30’s when she studied photography with Robert Heinecken at UCLA. She would later become a CalArts professor and her work was included in the 1981 Whitney Biennial and a 2009 retrospective at the Getty. Despite her success, some of her earliest work is now seeing the light of day for the first time – on view at the Rose Gallery in Santa Monica and published by Aperture in a book titled Other Rooms. These images that date from the mid-1970’s depict solitary women, often bound, in ambiguously erotic staged scenes. They have a theatrical quality, “predating the staged photographs of Cindy Sherman and Gregory Crewdson,” notes Noelle Bodick on Artspace. In this sense, they reflect a moment when narrative and psychological intensity supplanted the conceptual bent of the early 1970’s.
The exhibition Jo Ann Callis: Honey is on view at Rose Gallery in Santa Monica through August 16, 2014.
Matt Stromberg is a freelance visual arts writer based in Los Angeles, CA. In addition to Glasstire, he has contributed to Daily Serving, Art Practical, Hyperallergic, and the book LA Artland (Black Dog, 2005).
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