Interviewing photographer Glen E. Friedman

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henry rollins glen l friedman

Photographer Glen E. Friedman has documented rebellion. Skateboarders, American punk rock, and the dawn of hip-hop. Recently, his famous “Fuck You All” show ran at 941 Geary in downtown San Francisco and a few of his works were placed in the Photographic History Collection of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian, and at the Met as well. Before he made it to the Bay to open his classic show, Glen gave me a call to talk photos, ideals, photographing icons, controlling corporations, the creation of positive propaganda, approaches to visual aesthetics, and more.

Let me start off by saying this is an honor to be talking to the Annie Leibovitz of my generation.

God, I wouldn’t want to be the Annie Leibovitz of anything but I know and appreciate that you meant that as a compliment.

The first thing I thought of when your name was brought up to me recently was your picture of Black Flag from the Azerrad’s Our Band Can Be Your Life, where Rollins is making that face and the band’s pogo-ing, caught by the camera in mid air.

That’s one of my personal favorite photos of all time. I have had people write me, you know, pages about that one photo, magazine articles about that one photo and it’s great because it’s a special shot that I love myself too, it’s not just a one off that I don’t care about. I mean here you have a band a year before its peak and just starting its new peak with Rollins and it’s an incredible image and it’s funny that it's vertical because I was shooting a lot of vertical pictures at that time because a lot of my stuff was going into Action Now skateboarding magazine and I wanted to get a full page or even a cover, and if you were using horizontal you would only get half a page because they would never use a music shot across a spread. It was used in Action Now and it was in some New York fanzine that a girlfriend of mine worked on at the time, I don’t know, Art Damage or I don’t know, I can’t remember. It continues to inspire people, it’s totally exciting to see that.

And it was totally interesting in the Azerrad book, for better or for worse. I’m not a fan of most of those bands in the book to be honest, but they all did something valid for their own particular scenes for sure. But the fact that he had the really important Black Flag in there and that photo on it, I’m really proud of that.

He’s great in his coverage of Black Flag, the Minute Man, Minor Threat, but when he gets to Sonic Youth I felt that the narrative falls flat and strained, his survey becomes less inquisitive, substantive and interesting.

Maybe it kinda fell off at that point because they’re not important. I like them as a people (Sonic Youth), but they meant nothing to me. They were a zero of a band as far as I am concerned. Great people but boring as a band, total boredom, totally uninspiring, they put me to sleep. But really nice people and maybe that’s why it fell apart in that part of the book!

I was curious how you personally describe the difference in your photo design and composition for album covers versus portrait photography and live captures of both bands and skateboarders.

There’s an intensity in everything that I always go for. A composed image is much easier than an action shot, when you’re shooting skateboarders and live music. Depending on the scene, I don’t shoot as much as most people, I wait for those right moments to come where sometimes you wait, sometimes you miss them, I’ve missed a lot of shots, good shots, I’m watching intently all the time, I want my image to be in focus, I want it to be composed nicely, I want it to be pleasing to my eye later on. I think the more beautiful you make it the more people will be inspired later. I don’t want someone to say, “Oh it’s raw and that’s what makes it great and anyone who does raw stuff is great.” And true, maybe it’s raw because I didn’t have all my equipment and I’m just shooting it. But I’m not there throwing the camera around.

I think if you don’t look through the camera you can’t take the picture. I think it’s ridiculous when people stick their hands up and they ruin everybody else’s pictures by the way and I don’t shoot many shows because these people ruin good pictures. If you, I mean, if you hold it to your face like a photographer if you hold it to your face, you know, it still looks horrible but to have a camera sticking in the air!

It’s tacky. What are you feelings about the advent of the camera phone and there saturation at shows being another hand up in the crowd?

I think it’s totally crazy, I think it’s totally insane. It’s great for people to take pictures of the kids and family stuff or for note taking if you don’t want to forget something with their iPhones but other than that its mind boggling how people want to document every fart they ever make, it’s like… I don’t know, I don’t know.

I want to hear you describe your aesthetic shift in your photo books from My Rules to Recognize.

I think there is very little difference in the aesthetic or the impetus that got me to do My Rules that got me to do Recognize they are both very, one could say egomaniacal; an artist putting his works in front of people. But also at the same time I felt it was personal responsibility, for something that should be done. I want to speak to people and inspire people, with My Rules I did it myself, before I had a computer, I made every dot on the page, I was responsible for it, Thrasher Magazine and up in the shipyards of San Francisco, that’s where My Rules was born. But you look through all of my publications since then, I mean six books. The last book I did was the Fugazi book, but Recognize you’re picking on probably because it is completely different from all the other stuff. But still it’s the same thing, I think it’s very inspirational I’m responsible for every dot on the page, I designed it myself, took it to the printer myself, did the whole thing myself.

My Rules I distributed out of my own trunk to music stops and everything else like that and it was the best selling zine of the era, it was really a one off but it sold ten times more copies than Recognize did! But Recognize is a very special thing, very radical its own way it’s a lesson to young people in the world of photography to capture beautiful art out of some things no one thinks twice about.

You talk a lot about ideals and I was wondering how you use that approach when shooting your subjects.

I take shooting very seriously, I have a goal in mind and that has continued over the years and there are times when I am more casual than others but usually I am very precise about what I am doing. I want to waste less time of mine and the subject’s and I want to take care of business. Not in a financial sense, business of where I’m here on a mission and I want to accomplish that the best way I can.

Does that makes sense, Are you confused in any way?

No, I understand, it’s an ethic.

Absolutely, absolutely it’s an ethic, that’s your words going in there and I agree. I have an incredibly strong work ethic when it comes to my photography. I am not fucking around like some of these jerks that are getting off being photographers these days.

Like I said, with the skate stuff I started getting pictures published in skateboard magazine because back then I wasn’t supporting a family, I wasn’t even supporting myself, I was fucking fifteen years old and living at home. I mean look at my books, look at the photos; you will see a lot of beautiful stuff that has never been published. And that’s because there was politics, things to be done, I had to work hard to get my stuff published, not just take the best shots but to get to a point where it was undeniable. When I got into punk rock it wasn’t that hard because a lot of people graduated from skateboarding to punk rock, my great friends MacKaye and Rollins being the best examples of the great skateboarders before they got into the punk rock thing. But then it was the whole DIY ethic, we didn’t call it that then, we didn’t have a choice we didn’t choose to be DIY but that was the only way it could be done.

To continue what you were saying about the early Black Flag days it reminded me of something I heard Ian MacKaye once say about the artificiality of going out to shows. It was pretty good.

I tend to agree on a lot of things that he says. We do think alike on a lot of levels, his analogies…

Do you two hang out much?

Depends on what you mean by much. We certainly talk on the phone once a month, he lives in D.C. and we get together at least once a year. He’s a great inspiration and a family friend, I consider him a brother.

You did the “Dissent is Patriotic” slogan on Russell Simmons’ windows. What do you see as the current challenges to dissent in the U.S.?

Well it depends on how radical you want to be, being that I’m a little older and now that I have a family I’m certainly not taking the same risks, but this was a bit of a risk being that it was in someone else’s apartment. But to be quite honest I though “coexist” was a little soft, but Russell had asked me to do something again as a reply to this disgusting dialogue going on a for a few months that has died down now, it was all hype really. I just wanted to label the whole building as a mosque, but Russell and my wife thought it was a little too radical. She suggested the “coexist” that we saw a on a lot of bumper stickers. You know we put a few other signs out too making it clear that this is about freedom of expression and freedom of religion and that it is actually the law that the mosque can be built anywhere.

It was fun to do it and the amount of media attention you get when you put those signs up in those locations, it’s breathtaking and immediately people are talking about it, talking shit and I’m usually not a part of anything that happens so instantaneously. I think the Liberty Street protest was much more radical and it didn’t get alot press coverage in the United States because it happened during the Republican Convention. It was one of my proudest moments to be quite honest, it was something more people saw than anything else I did, it was a very strong statement right in front of the hole in the ground some three years later when all these Republicans were coming to town trying to make it their trophy. That was why they were fighting their war. It was a very special, incredible thing and I’m very proud of that one.

It’s very popular to be against the Obama administration, with the conspiratorial and bizarre Glen Beck on the right taking us back to these John Birch societies, and then you got your alleged Marxist dissidents on the left. Given your collaborative work with Shepard Fairey, could you elaborate on the complications in your approaches to creating these statements?

I’ve done collaborations with Shepard Fairey and had a show at his gallery two years ago in LA. He’s not a radical in my opinion, he’s a liberal, but now a days he’s considered a bit more radical with the poster that helped Obama become president. He’s trying to do good in the way that he can, he’s a commercial artist, he’s a street artist, he doesn’t hide too much behind anything, he makes some statements and he’s proud of them, he has fun doing his art that sometimes pays homage to other people’s stuff and sometimes completely reconfigures it into something else and he’s a great artist and a good technician and a crafts man and an artisan. People always hate the person on top. Most of his statements I agree with are quite good and positive and he's someone I think deserves respect and I’m happy he’s here.

And when he used some of my works cause he was inspired by them he called me and asked permission and I was flattered that he was using them and later on in years when he was getting more popular we bumped into each other one night we started a collaboration. He called me the night that Jam Master Jay was killed. It was generous of him to do that graphic representation of that image and I was having a show the next day and wanted it to be in tribute. We collaborated on five different pieces. Shepard was inspired and we’d take an image and ask what could we do to make it look cool or look better or to add to it in some way and we have done with about five or six images.

From an Andre the Giant stencil to…

I mean even Andre the Giant and the whole “obey” campaign, I knew right away where he got it from, I loved that John Carpenter movie too, telling people open your eyes, and um, I’m not hating on him at all and if people want to talk shit fuck him. The most radical person I know? No. Do I agree with him on everything he does? No. Does he make some good political commentary in the world? Yes.

It’s a fascinating evolution…

He’s speaking up, he’s letting his voice be heard, what the fuck have you done?

Um, well…

Know what I’m saying? What the fuck have you done* in relation to him? He has done it and he is doing it still.

I was wondering if you have any wild war stories from back in the 80s of hanging with Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons?

Well, they both remain close friends of mine to this day to tell you the truth, there are so many stories I couldn’t tell you one to pick on and war stories I don’t know what you really mean by that. Personal stuff of moments of craziness or exciting times in the studio, there’s just too many. I remember introducing Rick to Glen Danzig, I remember bringing him to meet Slayer for the first time and many others. I think one of the most fun things was one of the very first times we hung out. When they came down to LA, they were staying in the same hotel room and L.L. Cool J’s first album just came out and it was the first Def Jam album to come out.

I took them out to Westwood where people used to cruise their cars, that was until a couple years later when someone got shot and they shut the whole thing down, but people used to cruise their cars in Westwood near where I was living at the time and they had never heard of cruising and wanted to check the whole scene out. We just started driving around and we got caught in traffic and every car that drove by was playing a record that they produced. And that was an incredible moment. So we parked the car and they just sat out on the hood of the car, no one knowing who they were, just observing the whole scene. That was a real special moment to me, a point in time that won’t happen again. And other times. Introducing Rick to bands he would have a long relationship with; the arguments that we got into over a lot of different things. You know, we have a lot of mutual respect between the three of us and there are a lot of things we don’t agree on too that are equally interesting. I mean I consider Russell one of my best friend and Ian MacKaye one of my best friends and you couldn’t find people more opposite in some ways but in other ways they are very passionate about what they do.

Are you still straight edge to this very day?

That’s not even a question, I mean I don’t think there’s any other way to be, am I still straight edge, absolutely, who wouldn’t be? I don’t even understand, I mean I know that some people aren’t, but why are you bowing down and letting yourself be controlled by corporations to dull your mind, corporations being Anheuser Busch or the fucking government that allow drugs to be perpetuated to urban areas and parts of the world to dull your mind, who wants to be a part of that? I don’t know, maybe it’s more relaxing and you don’t have to think about your problems as much. Generally, I think it’s a control issue and they want to control you and I really don’t want to be controlled by anyone. So, number one, smoking never appealed to me so I never did it, except when I was forced to by some of the Dogtown guys and I was a few years younger and got conned into it and who likes a cigarette the first time? Someone in a movie screen makes it look cool. And who likes alcohol the first time? It tastes like vomit, there’s nothing positive about it whatsoever if you ask me. So to ask if I’m straight edge, proudly yes, because maybe it will inspire someone who’s not so sure. I wear vegan shirts, I wear straight edge shirts, some people think I’m crazy cause I’m 48 years old and wearing these shirts but it’s silly to be controlled by other people.

* 'What the fuck have you done' is also the header for Glen’s blog

The conversation ventures further into issues of government taxation, gun control, alcohol prohibition, the creative merits of keeping “edge,” thoughts on family life, future projects, journalism, philosophy and a few words of input on how to preface his interview. Needless to say I took them into consideration. Meanwhile check out Glen’s blog.