Idealist Propaganda: The Raw Power of Glen E. Friedman
"Search and Destroy" funnels out onto the 10:30 p.m. Saturday Sunset Blvd. sidewalk, violently greeting late-arrivals to Glen E. Friedman's Idealist Propaganda exhibit. Iggy's cocaine cacophony carves up Tymphanic cavities. Like a pistol gripped power drill, James Williamson's guitar rattles the window panes of the poor saps staying at the Echo Park Super 8, adjacent to Shepard Fairey's Subliminal Projects gallery. Good luck trying to turn in early when confronted with the one-two assault of The Stooges, plus the 100+ Dewars-drunk art geeks serried into the small space--among the thousand-plus bold-faced names and miscellaneous, vivid characters that poured in during the three hour opening.
It's a sonic coincidence too appropriate to be apocryphal, not even for the most blocked journalist desperate for a lead. And not just because "Search and Destroy" donated the bricks for the punks to toss only a few years later---a movement that Friedman so poignantly captured with his seminal shots of Fugazi, Black Flag, Minor Threat, Bad Brains, Suicidal Tendencies, et al. But because "Raw Power" is the most pithy phrase you could use to summarize the aesthetic strand running through all of the 46-year-old Friedman's collected works.
And the crowd, well, "eclectic" wouldn't suffice. Russell Simmons and Brett Ratner were there, but somehow, they were the least interesting people to observe. It was one of those only in L.A. or New York type deals: 9-year-olds in camo jackets, faux hawks and Obey T-shirts. Enough scarves for a decade in the Swiss Alps, despite tolerable 50 degree weather. Alabaster skinned, azure-eyed art students wearing Michelin-lipped scowls, faraway looks and leather. Ziggy Stardust-aping glam rockers with purple pompadours, scrotum-strangling black pants, and zebra blouses. Hipster moms precariously cradling new borns to their breasts. Fleet Foxes impersonators with shaggy beards and tattered wool-knit caps and Khaffiyehs. I'd go on, but that's what the slideshow's for.
Visibly uncomfortable in the role of cynosure, Friedman loomed largest: a West LA skate-punk approaching middle-age, still rocking the uniform of jeans, Converse and a plaid flannel buttoned-up to the neck---Tim Burton shock of hair on his head, graciously handling all autograph requests and gawking. It had to be weird, attending an obscenely packed celebration for your first career retrospective, presented by one of your most prominent disciples. The price tags on even the smallest piece ran in upwards of a grand, his radicalism burnished with a certain post-millennial respectability. I interviewed Friedman (see below), but really, the guy doesn't need to say a word. Just go see the exhibit sometime between now and January 9. Raw power indeed.
L.A. Weekly: Your photos captured some of the most iconic movements and trends of the last 30 years: The Dogtown skaters, the rise of hardcore and the early Def Jam years of hip-hop. Do you still consider it possible for such independent-minded sub-cultures to flourish today?
Glen E. Friedman: It's still out there in different areas. It's kind of weird that being a punk is still considered rebellious 25 to 30 years after people started doing it. Back then, it was really rebellious... the late '70s, early '80s--people thought you were a freak from hell. When rap got big, people were offended. People couldn't believe this was music. No radio stations wanted to play it. People hated it and it really was offensive to them and not accepted. Same with skateboarding. Before it became what it is today, people thought it was a weird toy for kids messing around in swimming pools and backyards, after hours with no supervision. It freaked people the fuck out.
Why are those three things still considered rebellious today, 30 years on? It makes you think something's going on with the culture--there's an over-saturation, an over-necessity of media and the appetite of needing content. All of a sudden things that are bullshit are being written about just to fill space between ads. When I was a kid, they had three or four magazines, not 300. Skateboarder magazine was our bible, then a few more came along and they were shitty, so no one read them.
It's nothing new, it's the dumbing down of America by Republican governments, they've let the schools go to hell since the days of Prop 13 (here in California). People didn't care about schools, they wanted lower taxes and all of a sudden you have dumber people. People don't know what's good and they accept what they're being fed, that in combination with Cable TV and you have a purely capitalist, consumer society that you have to survive in. I don't believe that stuff and I don't like it. Instead, I try to inspire people to rebel against it in any way that I can--through the inspiration of people who inspire me. I try to take beautiful and characteristic pictures of people and hopefully lead them towards the next step of wanting to do it themselves.
Where do you believe the best examples of independent, original thinking exist?
The best example is people on the Internet. There is a rebellious Internet culture. A viable indie media exists, metro blogs might be more commercial but they exist and they communicate on an underground level. You can find like-minded people who are politically motivated and they're radical.
Of course, there's a lot of bullshit, maybe more bullshit than not. But you've got to figure that even if it's commercialized, back in the day there were maybe 50 kids in the scene in New York and maybe 10 percent of them were real hard core. All of a sudden if you have 20 million punk kids with 10 percent hardcore, than you have 2,000,000 radical kids. All boats rise with the tide, including the hardcore boat.
I promoted and articulated things that represented my life style, and how it inspired me. I always wanted to take the most radical and intense photos I could. I also knew that if I took them in particular way and paid attention to composition and character it would come out well. So that you don't have to be a skater to understand. I was lucky to live in a time when everyone was creative and everyone that surrounded me energized me. I wanted to share those stories during that vital period of those scenes, when every band sounded different and skaters did their own thing. That period of my life, between '75 and '88 or '89, things were evolving rapidly. The sport was evolving in a week what now happens in a year. Same with punk rock. Look at the bands that came up between '80 and '82, you don't get stuff like that in six or 10 years today. Take hip-hop, the golden era from '84-88, every single weekend there'd be a new hot record. All those great records made in that time are still played today and not that many from the '90s are still played today.
Are there are scenes or people that you'd like to shoot that you haven't yet?
None that can really come to mind. If I want to shoot it, I do. Fifteen years ago, I would've liked to have shot Snoop or Trent Reznor. But there's no use to shooting people who have already peaked, I leave that to other people. I like to do it before other people do it. Sometimes I'll shoot people after the fact, if they still inspire me.
Your retrospective is being held at Shepard Fairey's gallery. To the casual observer, it would seem that the two of you share similar themes and concerns in your work. Would you say that's a fair assessment?
Shepard has always been forthright in saying that he's been inspired by my work for many years. Before he knew me, he co-opted my work for some of his art. When he had access, he would ask permission to use it. I like what he does--he's a craftsman who is very good at what he does, even when he co-opts other people's work, he doesn't distort it, he lets it serve its original purpose. Even if he's borrowing imagery from earlier decades, he's using it for the same rebellious feeling, he's not doing it to make money. He's promoting his rebellious ideals.
I would consider myself more of a radical progressive than he is. I'd consider him a hard core liberal. I'm not mad at that. Not everyone can be a radical, we have all these scumbag conservatives and why not have a good hard core liberal who likes helping the community. I respect the man a lot; he's a master craftsman and an articulate thinking individual.
When they came to me to do the show, we'd been friends for many years and the space is very small for me. I've had shows with a quarter of the work in twice the space, but because it's Shepard and he knows me so well and understands what I do, why not do it? I hadn't shown in L.A. in a few years and the show will be jam-packed with stuff I've never displayed in L.A. Ninety-percent of the stuff has been published in my books but a good portion has never been seen by anyone other than me. It will also be the first time I'm exhibiting stuff from my last art book.
You've displayed an almost Weegee-like ability to be in the right place at the right time? How much of that is luck, how much of that is savvy and how much is just knowing the right people to surround yourself with?
I think it's a lot of hard work. I was very involved as young person in learning about cultures and what was going around me. I was lucky to be born at that time but so were a lot of other people and they were taking pictures--I worked that much harder, got the stuff that lasted and stood above the rest. The images speak for themselves. It was hard work, persistence and having an excitement level that drove me to want to inspire others as I was being inspired.
Would you say there are any common aesthetic or ideological strands that cut all your photographs?
I think this has been really well articulated by Ian Svenonius in my book Recognize. But I'd have to say I strive for a really simple, clean, but articulate and specific aesthetic towards classical forms and art. I want a perfect symmetry, to capture the character of the subject, and to expose people to something that might not be familiar, but to make it familiar. Politically, always been radical, or at the very least exciting and intense. I like it when the work has a feeling of aggression in it.
Do any favorite subjects to shoot stand out above the rest?
I have my favorites from the skateboarding years. They were the people with the most style and radical performances. When it came to the punk rock years, it was the people who put themselves on the line more than the others. My personal favorites can probably change from one day to the next, but in skating someone like Jay Adams stands out. In punk rock, I'd say in the early years, Black Flag and in the later years, Fugazi. In hip hop, I enjoyed what I was doing but it wasn't quite as vital to me, being that I was older, in my mid 20s to late 20s and it was much more premeditated. But it was very interesting to me and very provocative politically and aesthetically. I tried to take hip hop visuals back to the streets. I asked rappers to stay in their own elements and I captured them and idealized them that way. But it was very interesting to me, both aesthetically and politically. Public Enemy always comes to mind because they were so overtly political at a time when so few others were.
What would you like people to remember you by?
For being an idealist and never giving in. I've tried to fight for what I believe in and I've tried not to do things for myself, but for the community. I've tried to make the world a better place. I didn't only become vegan for my own health or the animals being slaughtered, I did it because I know how it affects the environment. I'm a caring, loving, but very aggressive, loud-mouthed person, that's how I'll be remembered, whether I like it or not. I know it and I'm proud of it. On top of that, I really know how to take a good fucking picture that tells a story.