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?
I like entertainment, I watch a couple of TV programmes a week, I enjoy the series Lost [laughs] I’m not such a hard-ass, I mean, I am, but I love going to see Star Wars and some of the big pop movies sometimes, they are very exciting, and who doesn’t like a James Bond movie? But the truth is, in photography, I think it’s just really been abused. Film has been abused as well, but not quite as much as it is too expensive to do it, it’s not as easy, but anyone can call themselves a photographer now, and quite frankly I have never called myself a photographer. Photography is what I do, but if I had to put a label on it, I would call myself an artist – I don’t want to sound like a weirdo calling myself an artist, but I do believe in art and love art, but I am very particular about the art I like. I don’t like much contemporary art at all, I think graffiti is incredible, I love it on the walls, but does it belong in a museum? No. It’s made for the street. Is it worth buying? No, I don’t believe in that, don’t make it more than what it is, these guys are fucking scribbling on the walls, and that’s the end of that! They don’t have the skill of a Rembrandt, or even a Shepard Fairey, most of them. I ilke things that are precise. I like a technician, someone who is a craftsman who really has a skill that no one else has.
When I learnt to take photographs I thought about how I would get my pictures into the magazines. It had to be different, because if it wasn’t different or better then there would be no reason to publish it. When I was growing up I was looking at National Geographic and Sports Illustrated and Surfer Magazine, these magazines in the seventies, the photography was breathtaking, and compared to what you see today that’s so dime a dozen, mediocre, nothing, it’s like news photography, where I’m like ‘oh you were there? So what?’ After the moment it’s worthless unless you happen to catch a funny moment or something. Photography is a dying artform, even though its growing in leaps and bounds every day, the quality of it as an art is falling off into nowhere. A friend of mine, the old photo editor of one of the magazines I worked with, recently told me that eighty per cent of the photographers today couldn’t expose a photograph properly if they had to use film. Quite frankly they are lucky, because it’s not easy shooting with film, and I am a bit envious of some of them, I wish I didn’t have to lose so many photos because the exposure was bad, and maybe some of them are being rescued by photoshop now or something, I don’t know, but it’s like, you don’t learn, you don’t know what light is or focusing, shutter speed, depth of field, how much it all comes into play. They are only snap shootists, then, aren’t they? And that’s okay, there’s a place for that, but it shows in the work, it’s lifeless, not interesting, there is so little character in the work.
That’s an interesting question, because a lot have become quite iconic ones, and I love them, but there are some that aren’t as well known and mean a lot to me. The picture in The Idealist of Jay Adams, where there is a palm tree leaf coming in to the frame and Jay is at the centre, and it is composed so perfectly, that was the first day I used a 35mm camera. I was fourteen when I took it, and it was a perfect image but wasn’t published ever, instead they picked a more radical image, a guy that was aggressive looking, and was falling down really, and it was the first picture I had published, and was a full page, it was mind-blowing but disappointing in a way, because he was falling. I got a lot of attention for it, and it gave me a reputation straightaway, but the picture from the same roll was the Jay one, and it was never shown until The Idealist, and has a special meaning to me to this day, I still can’t believe I composed such a perfect picture as a fourteen year old!
And another one that actually is famous is the one of Black Flag, it has been used on a lot of fanzines and is a shot of Greg [Ginn], Henry [Rollins] and Chuck [Dukowski], and is a vertical shot. When I would shoot back then I wanted to get a full, not half page. I still think it is one of the most incredible photographs of all time; they are all going insane, the guitars are pointing and framing Henry perfectly, he looks like a cartoon character, he is flailing, his face looks insane, and they look completely crazy, it was one of Henry’s first shows and they were my favourite band. Those are the two photographs that come to mind, but I have so many pictures, so many of The Beastie Boys that people haven’t seen that are hilarious. They always used to make me laugh, it was really fun, during the days when I was teaching them what the wide angle lens was and the fisheye, then they went crazy with that. The first photo session we ever had together was when they came to Los Angeles, I took a couple of rolls, it was amazing, good stuff. Other times where I had the chance to shoot people and hang out was with Fugazi, and that book is like one photograph, a twenty year image, I mean there are beautiful books of Bob Dylan and The Beatles, but I don’t think any of them have the depth and variety of Fugazi, it is probably the greatest book of a band ever made, it was the relationship I had with them. When I would get bored I would try different ways of shooting them, and then stopped using a flash altogether. I haven’t used a flash since 1990 because I wanted to work with what was available, and the flash demands so much attention, and lights up the thing artificially. The kids can use digital now, and don’t need flash anymore, and I really envy that actually, but the moments we captured can’t be duplicated and I am very proud of that, but we lost a lot of photos too.
I still play softball every week with Adam Horovitz, he is the most talented and sweetest and works so hard. They are very creative guys but number one they are pranksters and began taking themselves seriously but took it in a different way. Check Your Head was a landmark, and I was inspired to shoot that photograph on the cover by the music. I hadn’t seen them for three years, and then we hung out in Los Angeles and had a fun time, they always make me laugh, and are so funny, and we were in their studio, and they played me the demos, and I was so excited, and said ‘let’s take some pictures before I go’, they said they already had an album cover, but we drove around for a day and then I faxed them the photos, and they called me up and said they loved the photograph so much that they were going to use the fax of it on the cover. The original vinyl has the fax on it, but the CD used the photograph, but the vinyl is cool as it is all pixelated. That particular photograph was one where Adam Yauch asked me to make it feel like that photograph of Minor Threat for Salad Days, and I had them sitting on a curb with their instrument cases, and it was three or four frames, and I said ‘that’s your Salad Days shot right there’, and even though we were going to Adam’s house and shooting on his porch, I knew that the earlier shot was the Salad Days shot.
We worked pretty well together back then. It’s funny, the other day I was looking through my files and saw so many pictures I forgot about, I could do a Beasties book, there are so many pictures. I probably will in the next five years when my son goes to school, but books are so expensive to produce, the shipping companies make more on my books than I do, but maybe in the next two or three years I could do them digitally and special order them for people, but I do hope there will be one on the Beasties, and Run DMC and maybe a Black Flag one, but it’s so prohibitive right now with books, it’s really tough. With Recognise, I told myself that I was putting money aside and was making a book, and if people bought it then great, and if not, then fine, it was a statement of photography. We didn’t sell many of them, it was a big investment in that artistic statement, but I had to do it.
Henry is a very interesting guy, and I think what he has done with his life and where he has gone with it…I could never have predicted. I didn’t know him that well. We talk once in a while, but rarely because he is so into what he does, I think he is like a shark, they say if a shark stops it dies, I think that’s Rollins in more ways than one, that’s Henry Rollins. I think we should make a drawing of him, his face on a shark’s body, I’m not great at drawing, but I might have to tell Shepard about that.
– Siobhán Kane
Details of the Glen E Friedman exhibition running in The Lighthouse Cinema from July 8th are at http://thumped.com/latest/headline/glen-e-friedman-exhibition.html