Siobhán Kane spoke with Glen E. Friedman ahead of the opening of an exhibition of his work in the Lighthouse Cinema.
Born in 1962, Glen E. Friedman grew up in an era of heady change for America, both politically and culturally, and his work often feels like a kind of alchemy of the two. His particular alchemy is arrived at through the love and understanding of the art of photography, and the often special relationship he has with his subjects. Photography is deeply linked to memory, and Friedman echoes figures like St. Agustine who regarded memory as ‘a storehouse’ and Freud, who called it ‘a mystic writing pad’, and there is something very profound at its root, when approached respectfully and passionately.
Friedman is one of the great photographers, and his images are so powerful and iconic partly because they are built on the foundation stones of integrity, character, and beauty. Like most of the great artists, Friedman has never compromised, and his work is at turns thrilling and challenging because of that fact, and also because he is not only capturing a moment, but a movement, of which he believes in and is part of.
From his work with the Dogtowners and skateboarding culture, (of which he got his first photograph published at only fourteen years old in Skateboarder magazine) through to his relationship with the punk rock and hip-hop communities, Friedman has been present at either the inception or most exciting times in those movements’ evolution; and luckily for us, his ability to ‘tell’ those stories of rebellion and inspiration, passes on not only ideas but ideals, rooted in philosophy and politics, social and cultural history; a platform for a common ground for the underground – the only ground, really.
It is almost overwhelming to trawl through his books Fuck You Heroes (1994), Fuck You Too (1996), The Idealist (1998), Dogtown – The Legend of the Z Boys (2000), Recognise (2005) , Keep Your Eyes Open (2007), (all published by Friedman’s own Burning Flag Press) because there is something about his work that has a different kind of vibrancy contained within, it is as if that image of Public Enemy or Black Flag is asking you a question, or suggesting that you ‘do something’ , and the DIY ethic is something Friedman grew up with and could not live without, propelling him on to various diverse experiences such as managing Suicidal Tendencies, working closely with Def Jam in the era of Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons, to capture some of their most interesting artists (such as Run DMC, Public Enemy and The Beastie Boys), self-publishing the seminal photozine My Rules in 1982, which is in a sense a document of the ethos that Friedman has never abandoned, and which features some of the most iconic bands of that, or any other period, such as Bad Brains, The Misfits, Black Flag, and Minor Threat.
His work is synonymous with interesting outsiders, which is why in the last number of years he has photographed people such as the fascinating Cornel West – philosopher, critic and civil rights activist, because he seems to have a gift for prophecy, not only capturing important moments and people, but also individuals that will come to be known as pivotal and significant through the march of time. In essence, he is capturing history, but it could also be said that he is making it, every single day – Siobhán Kane talks to him.
You have always been so prolific, do you think that it is partly because you came up in that punk rock community?
It had everything to do with punk rock, quite frankly, well maybe not everything. I think I always felt that I had to do stuff on my own, if you want something done right, then do it yourself, I kind of figured that out on my own, I never had people as motivated around me as I was. You know, we didn’t have the internet back then and you just didn’t have access to things, but once I got really involved in punk rock, you got a whole other perspective on the world. I was just telling a young guy the other day who is helping me with my website, how things have changed so much, we had to work so hard to make things happen back then, it was a whole different thing, and a subculture in the way that people wouldn’t understand now. People can’t even imagine that because of the way you looked, people wanted to beat you up, even with skateboarding, first off they thought it was a toy, and girls weren’t attracted to skateboarders, they thought you were infantile, until a few years later all of a sudden it became attractive to them, but for the most part everything that we were doing in the beginning people looked down upon, but some of us had this instinct that it was very worthy of our time, was certainly making us happy and we didn’t really care, so we just kept on going and following our hearts and doing what we had to do. Growing up in America in the years that I did was interesting, but I never read Marx until I was in college. If every tenth grader read him then our political perspective might be so different. Kids now might get to read a little bit more as things are opening up, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, but back when I was growing up the Cold War was still strong and you couldn’t read about so many things, so when I did read it finally in college and about political philosophy, my mind was just blown, that things had been hidden from me, it was a kind of a mind expanding experience. Not many kids my age were big readers, and I certainly wasn’t at the time, but then being around the Dead Kennedys and Black Flag every day, and learning about politics every day, when punk rock started and I started getting involved in ’78, it was like a whole new world, it was so interesting to see people rebelling in a way that was really rebellious that no one had ever done before. Kids think that smoking cigarettes and drinking and going out to parties is a rebellious thing but it is quite the opposite isn’t it? As it is just what your parents did and is all controlled by corporations, you are paying money to these cigarette companies and drug dealers and alcohol companies and all they are doing is dulling your mind and poisoning your body. I thought that way before straight edge, I just thought it was a backwards situation going on, you know, I was very inspired.
And you were doing it all yourselves, fully embodying the DIY ethos.
In the days of Black Flag, I was inspired by how they did all their own flyers, and created all this stuff through their own little unit, there were no managers, all the bands were like that at the time. Anyone who had a manager was laughed at, it was just like ‘why don’t you just do it yourself?’, and for a long time I thought anyone who had a manager was a joke, including in hip-hop, I was like ‘why is this needed?’, but eventually you understand that when people get a certain amount of exposure or fame they can’t handle all the business themselves, but you know, I still handle all my own business, I am not a rock star or anything but it has always been about handling it myself. It takes up a lot of time, but I remember in the late eighties, some bands, and friends of mine got involved with record companies and couldn’t sign their own cheques, I couldn’t imagine not following it precisely and keeping control of everything, and it is not about being a control freak, it’s just being responsible for all your own stuff.
There is that brilliant Errol Morris documentary Fog of War about the Secretary of Defence for John F. Kennedy (and later after the assassination, Lyndon B. Johnson) Robert McNamara, which illustrated to some extent how he was such an idealist as a young man, but through entering politics lost hope, and eventually lost his way. Your work comes to mind in this context because it is so political, and often challenging, but more about outsiders who have the principles we expect our politicians to have; your work is more about retaining those ideals and hope, isn’t it?
I think that it is. The thing is, I am so strident about it, that people think I don’t have hope, that I am cynical and negative, it is a great misinterpretation – just because I am angry about something doesn’t mean I am an angry person, it means that I want better. The truth is I am generally quite happy, but I am upset for a lot of good reasons, there are a lot of bad things going on and we only know about a small fraction of them in the world. You need to argue, you need to yell and you need to speak up when there is something going on, otherwise people don’t find out about it. I am just trying to point things out so that they become positive. A lot of people don’t understand that. All the punk rockers that I knew were very positive people, and to this day the ones who had the integrity are some of the sweetest people you’ll ever meet, contrary to what people believe. They are angry because shit is fucked up and they want to fix it. They care.