August 2, 2010
Glen E Friedman
Glen E. Friedman is a 31-year-old photographer with mussy, dark brown surfer hair and beach-weekend stubble on his chin. He wears a baggy blue t-shirt and loose khakis, black Jack Purcells. On his left wrist there is a silver band, bright against his tan, and on his right he wears a number of black rubber bracelets. Friedman follows a strict vegan diet and, perhaps as a result, his eyes are piercing; as dark and bright as polished onyx. See him on the street, you'd take the guy for the aging skateboarder he is. Hear him talk and it takes only a few syllables to dope out that he's lived in California for a good part of his life.
Friedman's first book, Fuck You Heroes, will be available in early September, in both New York and L.A.; distribution to the rest of the country starts in November. Fuck You Heroes compiles photographs Friedman took between 1976 and 1991, of skateboarders, hardcore punks and rappers. He's publishing the book himself, through a company called Burning Flags Press, because, as he says in his preface, most publishers he talked to didn't think that people interested in skating or hardcore even read books, "let alone come into bookstores."
It's odd how many of the photographs are familiar. Five minutes with the book and I'm counting the number of shots that were on my bedroom wall growing up. Skating pictures I cut out of magazines, mostly in Brooklyn, the summer after fifth grade, there was nothing cooler than the distant and unknowable West L.A. skate scene, but some punk bands as well, and the cover picture from the last Minor Threat EP, which I found, an empty sleeve, at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge one afternoon in high school and put on the wall above my bed. The more recent work, too, is familiar: Run-D.M.C., Public Enemy, Ice-T, the Beastie Boys. They're all CD cover shots. They're on my shelves at home.
First picture in the book: Jay Adams, radical skate hero of my 11th summer, tanned nut-brown, with sun-streaked hair and a look of fierce determination. He's on a skateboard that's just barely inside the deep end of an empty pool in Brentwood, at the apex of a run that took him from the shallow end, down into the bowl and up onto vertical concrete, out onto the coping around the pool. The photograph, taken in October, 1976, captures him with his lips pursed, his arms out behind him for balance, his body folded down tight over the skinny wooden board, caught between turning left or right, seemingly miles above the ground and yet below the camera's eye.
Then Tony Alva, in a photo I cut out of one of the skateboard magazines that was on my bedroom wall for two years, in a trashed West Hollywood pool. It's 1977. Alva is crunched up at the lip of the bowl, vertical and moving fast, a bandanna wrapped tight on his head, holding back a mane of frizzy hair, with just his frontside rear wheel touching the coping. He is in the midst of a turn. There's a sneer on his lips and with his right hand wrapped around his bent knee for balance, he's flipping the bird to the camera. He's probably nine feet above the bottom of the pool.
Paging on, I find little Harley Flanagan from the Stimulators, banging on his drum set, shirtless, screaming, 12 years old, at Trax in 1980. Henry Rollins, a guy I always vaguely despised, a gaunt skinhead with just one tattoo, screaming into his mic after joining Black Flag, at a club in Costa Mesa in 1981. Ian MacKaye with Minor Threat, amid the crowd at CB's in 1982, a desperate bunch of punks slamming around him, MacKaye's mouth wide and contorted. A skeletal and manic Jello Biafra in the midst of a Dead Kennedys show, slamming down his mic stand at The Whiskey in 1981. Ice-T in acid-washed jeans and a polyester Adidas t-shirt, cut off at the arms, posing against a chain-link fence off Highway 101, Hollywood, 1986. Run-D.M.C. looking somehow both hard and middle class, under a Hollis Ave. street sign in Queens, 1985.
Hold up, now. Friedman is 31. In 1976, when he took that picture of Adams, he was 13 years old. I ask him about that. "I took photography as an elective in seventh grade," he tells me, laughing. "With a pocket Instamatic. The typing class was really crowded."
Born in North Carolina, but raised in the New York area, Friedman moved to L.A. when he was in third grade and his parents divorced; he spent his childhood in West L.A.: Brentwood, Westwood, Bel Air, Santa Monica, Venice. Among skaters, this area (Dog Town, the skateboard magazines I read as a kid called it) was the epicenter of the world. He got a skateboard, he says, even before his mom found a place to live.
Friedman went to Kenter Canyon public school and Paul Revere Junior High, both, he says, "huge skating schools," and, on the steep playground banks at Kenter where the area kids carved turns after school, got to know the scene. "I was, y'know, an about-average skater," he says. "But the above-average guys? In '75, '76, they were getting into magazines! That was cool, and I really did think, how can I get in there too?"
The photographs Friedman saw in SkateBoarder (at the time the nation's only, and therefore most popular, skateboarding magazine) weren't really capturing what he was seeing. "The photographers were all surfers (that was what was big then) and I really thought I could do better. I got a D in photography, but I was out there every day, with my friends; I figured, let me at least try."
Friedman shot with his Instamatic for a while, got ahold of a 35 mm, lost it, and then borrowed another. In the fall of 1976, Friedman found a new pool where no one had been before and corralled Adams, Alva and a few others into skating it so he could take pictures. Slide film. He'd heard that was important. A few days later, he showed the results to a few of the skaters, and to a freelance Skateboarder writer he met on the Kenter banks, C.R. Stecyk. Stecyk told him to call Warren Bolster, Skateboarder's editor, and then to send him the pictures.
Friedman's calling Skateboarder was a brave act for an eighth-grader; the magazine's niche market was in the process of widening into a chasm; two years later, Skateboarder would claim a national readership of one million. Plus, it was a long-distance call down to the magazine's offices in San Diego, and it struck Friedman as he dialed that this was, you know, kind of a big deal. He hoped that his mom wouldn't get angry about the cost of the call. He hoped Bolster didn't know how young he was. The editor took the call. Friedman made his pre-pubescent voice sound as low as he could, and started dropping the names of some of the established skaters who lived in his neighborhood: Alva, Adams, Paul Constantineau, Stacy Peralta. Friedman told Bolster that he'd been taking pictures of them, in local pools and on banks. Was he interested? Send down the slides, Bolster said, and a small bean of panic set in Friedman's stomach at the idea of trusting his photographs to the mail. "It was really important to me to know what was going to happen to them," he remembers.
Friedman is still like that; he doesn't like to lose track of anything. But back then, he says, photographs "were like autographs. I'd take a picture so that I know I was there, that I captured a moment. I collected those moments. "I told Bolster I really didn't want to lose them. That I had to know as soon as possible whether he wanted them or not." Yeah, yeah, Bolster said. Send them down.
A month or so later, a letter from the magazine came in the mail. Inside was a tear sheet from the forthcoming issue (a full-page photograph Friedman had taken) and a check for $40. "My name was on the picture," Friedman says, smiling. He pauses, then breaks out laughing. "It was complete insanity from there. Eighth grade. I was blown away."
Since then, through junior college and UCLA, a stint as manager of Suicidal Tendencies, as a columnist for Maximum Rock 'N' Roll, as the creator of a one-time-only punk photozine called My Rules, Friedman has made his living by taking photographs. Of skateboarders first, but then of punk rockers and hardcore artists and, more recently, of rappers^×over 100 album covers in all.
His subjects are all, Friedman says, fuck you heroes. People "who have shown us different ways of doing or looking at things."
It's more complicated than that, of course. In Friedman's images, bird-flipping skaters, snarling punks and posing-hard rappers alike, the overarching message appears to be more than, simply, fuck you. It is instead fuck you with a subtext: I reject you outright. Reject you and all of your stupid, petty beliefs and limitations; I am against you and that for which you stand, so high and mighty. In the shorthand form, the sub-language of the moving body: the finger. I don't even need to talk to you. Fuck you. Think for yourself.
That is Friedman's message, at any rate. The subjects and the skaters in particular) are generally a bit vaguer. "You could never find a more aggressive, arrogant, rowdy, perhaps ignorant bunch of people than my friends," Alva told Skateboarder at around the same time Friedman was getting his first photographs published. "That's just the way we are; that's the way we skateboard; that's the way we talk."
Being rowdy in the pursuit of excitement, Friedman feels, was a definite fuck you: to all the clean-cut Valley kids playing Little League on sculpted fields, to screwed-up moms and dads and stepdads and families, lame semi-suburban towns and, as, Friedman says, "all those dicks I went to school with who listened to Genesis, that bullshit." The Dog Town skaters were reckless, crazy, the antithesis of all that; they didn't care for authority, would skate anywhere, anytime, anything.
In '76 or '77, Friedman can't remember which, they emptied a pool on Rockingham Avenue in Brentwood (O.J. Simpson's house) and skated. Juice was away; construction was going on in the house. "When he came by," Friedman says, "he was actually cool about it." Whatever. It's probably unwise to ascribe much political significance to the skating pictures in Fuck You Heroes, except to say that the Dog Town skaters Friedman captured on film (whose rad-stoking-L.A. nonconformism sounds a lot like adolescent dickishness today) were idolized by kid skaters across the country.
Wherever you skated in New York in the mid-70s, for instance, whether in the unfinished drainage bowls that now lie under Borough of Manhattan Community College on Chambers Street, or on the banks under the Brooklyn Bridge, on loft ramps in SoHo or a plywood quarter-pipe in Riverside Park, there was always one guy with a bandanna and a mop of curly hair, an Alva board, an Alva style, an Alva attitude. I wanted to be Jay Adams, Paul Constantineau. I have dark scars on my knees and elbows to prove it.
On a smaller scale, Friedman was able to achieve a similar success with his punk-rock photographs. He was a bi-coastal child, spent the school year with his mom in L.A. and summers with his father in New Jersey. In high school, things got difficult at home; he reversed the process and went to school near his dad's. He had, he says, many of the classic adolescent rebellion problems: fights with his parents, beefs with teachers, difficulty with peers."I was difficult," he admits. Then adds, with a smile, "Although I never did anything wrong."
The atmosphere of punk (of straight-edge hardcore, in particular: no drinking, no drugs, no peer pressure, no anti-positivism) was perfect for him. "All these bands I was listening to at the start of the 80s," he says, "were saying things that I could relate to, talking about ideals, and integrity, what's fucked up and what's good." As with skating, Friedman says, the photographs he took were, at first, "an afterthought. I went to shows to slam dance, get out some angst, enjoy the music, just like everyone else."
It seems almost disingenuous, the way he says it, if only because the photographs he did take are so seminal and exciting: early, out-of-control shots of the Germs, Black Flag, the Stimulators, Dead Kennedys, Minor Threat, D.O.A., Bad Brains, S.S. Decontrol.
Friedman promoted the bands he liked relentlessly, first in Skateboarder, which was struggling to diversify after the skateboard boom of the 70s began to wane, then in the mainstream press and, after that didn't work, in 1982's self-published My Rules.
Friedman points to a picture he took of MacKaye in 1982, on one knee before the mosh pit at a club in Torrance CA, singing with the crowd. "I thought straight-edge was just this really great idea and I wanted to capture and spread it to as many kids as possible. To my peers. I thought we could try to change the attitudes of everyone who just went to parties to drink and get high, who didn't think for themselves."
Who knows. But look again at Friedman's photograph of Minor Threat, for the cover of the Salad Days EP in 1983, the band seated calmly on the steps of Dischord House in Arlington VA, staring at the viewer in skate shoes and jeans. It was the perfect picture of American punk rock, we are middle class maniacs; we live in the suburban house next door. You could be like us. Fuck you.
Then there's rap. Friedman got all hooked in with the Beastie Boys when they came to L.A. to open for Madonna's Like a Virgin tour; he'd met them in 1981 when they were still a hardcore band. They had been skaters. "Rap," Friedman says, "seemed to me to be the next step for hardcore music, a natural progression. The Beasties knew that." Granted, he says, "a lot of the kids involved were coming from harsher living circumstances, from a different direction. But the message was the same, and I wanted to spread that around." Through the Beastie Boys, Friedman got work with Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons; he did a tour book for Run D.M.C., album covers for Ice-T and the Beasties, for Public Enemy.
The resulting photographs, most of them posed, seem to lack the energetic craziness of his live-action skating or punk work, but they somehow continue to project the sneering, outlaw disenfranchisement Friedman craves.
Part of that is the hustler image: black leather, gold, guns. Part of it is the sneer itself. Sometimes, though, Friedman admits, "I think I've projected my own idealism onto my subjects, given them integrity they never really had."
Integrity, or the appearance of it, is Friedman's touchstone. "It's what you feel in your heart if you^Òre honest," he says. It is what, he says, his photographs are all about. One example might be one of the first photographs he took of Ice-T, standing by the 101 freeway in Hollywood, in April '86. Right hand on his hip, Ice-T stares down at the camera with a pursed-lip look of disdain on his face, a mesh gimme-cap perched sideways on his head. It is a posed picture, yes, but if you look into the rapper's eyes, blank and intelligent, as empty and foreboding as the sunglasses he wears in many of the later shots. You can detect almost the same fluid anger that comes out of the skater shots from the mid-70s, and from the sweaty faces of the punks. The message hasn't changed: fuck you.
"These are people who I look up to," Friedman says. "Or have looked up to, and that millions of other kids have looked up to, or still look up to, and have good reason to," he says, standing now, loud. Friedman's eyes are blazing. His demeanor is not aggressive, nor is it defensive. He's neither malignant nor benign. He only wants to explain. Forcefully: "That's why I called them heroes. They're not heroes in the traditional sense, but they are people who are speaking out or acting out about the bullshit that's going on in the world today, and they're not just sitting back and taking it. The image reflects that. And that's what's important to me."
I wrote that article in August, 1994; it appeared in NYPress on Aug. 24, 1994 as a cover story. In the months and years that followed, Glen and I stayed in touch, and talked a great deal about his work. Recently, as Glen started to put together his second book, Fuck You Too, the music and skating photo scrapbook you're reading now, I made a few calls, both to his friends and to people who he's worked with as artists and in business. As it turned out, there wasn't much difference between the two groups.
"What's your reaction to Glen's work?" I wanted to know. "Is he as fuck-you as his photographs suggest?"
Russell Simmons, the rap mogul and president of Def Jam, who's hired Friedman for record covers countless times, started laughing. He didn't have much time, he said, but could sum up Friedman in a recent, typical scenario:"Fuck You Too? I just got a big deal, a huge deal, from Coke. To be their spokesman. And I ask my good friend Glen to take one photograph for me, for a Coke ad, for more money than he's ever seen, just one photograph. And he says, "Coke? Fuck that.""
Rick Rubin, Simmons' ex-partner, illustrious producer, head of American Recordings and southern wrestling impresario: "For the people who grew up in punk rock, he's by far my favorite photographer of that generation. Every time he picks up a camera, it seems, he takes good pictures. [And] he's talented far beyond what we see in his art, though his personality doesn't allow him to do some of the things he could do, like be the president of a record company; he values himself far too much to allow himself to start where he'd have to to do that."
It's an important point. Because in addition to being a consummate artist behind the camera, Friedman is above all else a gifted talent scout: he's been at the epicenter of three extraordinarily large youth culture movements in the United States (skating, punk and rap) and he was there at the start of all three. Not with those who faded away, but with those who determined the directions the movements would take; stars ascendent.
"He's definitely the O.G. of rap photography," Ice-T says. "His were the very first images of rap to cross America, and he captured them exactly, this white kid from where-in-the-fuck."
Craig Stecyk, the journalist Friedman met on the Kenter banks in the mid-70s who first encouraged him to send his work to Skateboarder, concurs."The amazing thing about Glen," he says, "is his propensity for repeatedly making once-in-a-lifetime e hook-ups. He gets into stuff early, gets into it deep; he works it thoroughly and he's out of it before other people are even hip to its existence."
"It's clear in his photographs," says Tony Alva, skateboarding demigod turned snowboard and skate-deck sales heavyweight. "Glen is always in the right place at the right time, with his finger on the pulse of the moment. It's his dharma, his gift. We were these little shithead skateboarders and Glen was there; he came up from underneath with the rest of us, doing what he loved. You look at those skating photographs he took, and then of the bands and later with hiphop, and you can see: it's timeless."
I wondered why. Ian MacKaye, who Friedman has known since the early days of the D.C. hardcore scene, provided the best answer.
"It's all in the eye," MacKaye says. "Glen believes in the intensity of life, and he's always looking for it, in skating first, and then punk and then hiphop. He has total contempt for the typical photographic process. And what he does is, he waits. I've done photo shoots with him where we'll be out for an hour and he'll take one shot. There's an intensity that he's looking for, that he obviously relates to. And he knows it'll come."
"He may talk a lot of shit," Ice-T adds, seriously, "but you cannot deny his experience."
That's true for rap, of course, and for punk and skating as well. The images in Fuck You Heroes, and in Fuck You Too, helped many of us define our understanding of youth-culture America; white and black, West Coast and East. They are images that will remain in our heads long after we've moved on: our collective memory. Believe it, Friedman might say, or fuck you too.