FILLER! (from Canada)
Issue No. 7, December 1997

The Idealist
An interview with photographer
Glen E. Friedman
by Dave Fisher

If you scratch beneath the surface to determine what makes a great documentary photographer, you'll probably find qualities like vision, instinct, patience, and attitude.

Glen E. Friedman has these in spades.

For the past twenty years, Friedman has made a name for himself as the foremost pictorial witness of skateboarding, hard core punk and rap music cultures. It would have been noteworthy had he documented any one of those cultures, but to have been at the cutting edge of all three-and cataloging it all with a kick-ass portfolio of images-is not only incredible, it's crucial.

Our lives are so consumed with images that we often take the power of photography for granted. There's no getting over the fact, however, that for most of us, photographs are more than just art, and more than just documents, they're the indelible proof of the past. They're living history. I can read first-hand accounts about the Halifax Explosion, the great racehorse Man O War, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Martin Luther King's march on Washington, and the first Moon landing, but it's the photographic evidence that lends credence and makes them real.

Such is the value of Glen Friedman's vision. At the defining moments of some of the most significant movements in American music during the 1980's, his legacy can be seen through his past work in SkateBoarder and Thrasher magazines, and more significantly in the hundred-or-so pivotal album covers he shot for the likes of Minor Threat, Black Flag, Public Enemy, Beastie Boys, and many, many more.

In the past few years Friedman has been documenting his varied work in a pair of excellent, high quality and affordable books-Fuck You Heroes and Fuck You Too-that he's published through his own company Burning Flags Press and ConSafos. With an appropriately titled photo exhibition Fuck You All currently on tour internationally, a re-print of Fuck You Heroes now in bookstores, and a new project-The Idealist-in the can, I was keen to talk to Glen about what's happening in his life.

It's not always easy, mind you. A simple off-topic remark can get the opinionated photographer rushing toward parts unknown, and it's often a difficult task interrupting his breakneck train of thought. And although he considers being an asshole the price of asserting his devastating honesty without diplomacy or restraint, from where I sit, he's one of the more charitable and congenial people I've ever had the pleasure to interview.

I spoke with Glen via the telephone at his home in New York City.

Have you seen the recent advertising campaign by Nike advocating the rights of skateboarders?

I thought it was awesome. I hate Nike as a corporation, but I thought it was a great commercial.

What do you think about large, established corporations co-opting the counter-culture to advance their own interests?
I don't blame them, they're trying to make money. That's their business. If they think that's what's going to sell their product, that's their prerogative. They probably have some people who used to be involved in the counter-culture working in their advertising. It's an unfortunate circumstance that people sell their ideas and their ideals to help make another person even more money than they will ever need in anyone's lifetime, and have it put to no good use whatsoever. I don?t know what the hell they do with the billions of dollars they make, but they're certainly not treating most of their workers around the world fairly. I think a lot of people who work in advertising agencies don't think about what they're doing, they don't put two and two together, they don't realize some of the damage that selling products and lifestyles causes. Maybe some of them know, but they just ignore it and don't care to think about these things. I know when I get calls from advertising agencies to do campaigns for somebody or do some work for them, I ask them a usual battery of questions, depending on what the product or company is, and they're taken aback. I should say though, that I do use some corporate products, very few, I try to use as little as possible, but it's almost impossible to avoid.

We're talking over one right now.
Yes, that's right. Louis Farrakhan pays his electricity bill in Chicago, he's paying the white man right there. We all do these things we don?t want to do, unless we want to be Ted Kaczynski living in a hut in the bush. I appreciate [Kaczynski] -not necessarily the way he went about doing things-but his outlook on things, sure, I can sympathize with that to a degree. The way he dealt with things, I don't think it's fair to kill people, but he's fuckin? radical, he did some pretty crazy shit, it's pretty interesting.

You're in favor of civil disobedience.
As long as you're not hurting other people, sure, but it depends on a persons comfort level. People should stand up for what they believe in as strongly and sturdily as they can. You have to really feel it in your heart. Mean what you say, say what you mean.

I know that environment concerns are really important to you, so I'd like to ask about the physical impact of photography. A couple years ago Kodak was named one of North America's worst polluters; very ironic that a company in the business of preserving the past is one of the worst culprits for destroying the future. You've taken to using the internet to display your images and promote your work, so do you foresee yourself getting out of the film, paper and chemical end of photography?
No. For my own usage, it's a little difficult to rationalize, but let me try. My books are not printed on recycled paper. I replanted trees to replace those trees. Now I'm not very happy with that. The fact of the matter is that recycled paper is not of the quality that I need to print photo books. With all of the other conservation I do by being a vegan and by not using animal products in my life-the water I save, all the land usage that I save by not eating animal products-it gives me a clearer conscience in using some of the resources that I use. It might sound like bullshit, but I take recycling very, very seriously. If I use virgin trees to make my art book, I think that's okay, because that's where you need the use of virgin trees. If I used virgin trees to write notes on, to make a box with, or to make an envelope-disposable things where you're not trying to make really great reproductions-that's waste. To me it's not wastage if you're printing art on a piece of paper. I actually had an opportunity to talk to some development people at Kodak this past year, they asked if I'd try some of their film. I told them, sure, feel free to send me stuff, but I told them that I don't shoot that much and I really can't afford to just test a roll of film. When I shoot a roll of film I put everything into it, I don't want it to be a test, it's too important to me. I can't just go out and shoot a roll to see how it looks. If I shoot a roll I might create some fucking masterpiece and I don't want it to not come out. I was discussing with these people at Kodak the possibility of developing more ecologically friendly films, and they said they were actually working on them. I cannot deny that I use Kodak products-Kodachrome 200 is my favorite film in color, and Tri-X is my favorite black and white film. It used to be Kodachrome 64 until 200 was invented, and I really love the feel, everything's great about it. I use chromes because that was what I was brought up on-slides, they seem to last longer and they're easier to use for magazines. So, I can't deny my connections to Kodak because I use their products. If they wanted me to represent them somehow commercially, that's another story. But I told them if they could come up with something that is more friendly to the environment, used less processing, was less reliant on animal products, and was of professional quality, then I would be happy to promote them. They said they're working on all of these areas, so I see some promise. Right now they are trying to cut back on the gelatin, but there?s nothing-nothing-that holds color like gelatin, it cannot be done at this point in time. There are films that are possible without gelatin, but they lose their color very quickly, they're not archival at all, it's a problem. You're correct about the environmental impact from photography, but for me it comes down to excessive waste, that's the part that really concerns me.

The project you're currently working on is called The Idealist. Is that a working title or the official title?
That is the title. When I come up with a title, I usually stick with it.

Compared to the hostile and reactionary titles of your other projects and publishing company-Fuck You Heroes, Fuck You Too, Fuck You All, and Burning Flags Press-the new work sounds really introspective. What's it all about, what themes are you exploring?
To hit on the title first, it dawned on me that one has to be a bit of an idealist to even think of getting away with calling his books Fuck You Heroes and Fuck You All. To think it's possible to give these names to my works, and actually have them be successful, I think requires some amount of idealism.

Well let's focus on those titles for a second. What do your parents think of them?
My parents? I'm not too concerned what they think. We live very separate lives. I do appreciate them, particularly my mom's creativity, but what they think about doesn't concern me that much, it doesn't concern me at all actually. Really, as a matter of fact I'm a little bit offended that my father won't allow my baby half-sister to wear a t-shirt that says, 'Fuck You Heroes' on the back. They tell her that it's a bad word or something. I don't know why people are so afraid of words, everybody's said 'fuck you' or 'fuck this' at one time or another. The reality is that the people in my book are Fuck You Heroes, there's no better way for me to describe them. What am I going to call them-Rebel Youth Heroes? That would sound corny. I mean, that's what they are, but to me communication is the key, you have to keep it 'real' as they say. Again that's a cliché, but if you really believe it and you really live it, then you can't fucking hold back. I try to express myself as often and as clearly as possible. I'm not a writer, and there's a lot of things I don't do because I don't think I'm good enough at it. So many people do things that they're not good enough at and they do it anyway. Those are people I'm critical of, they're wasting other peoples time, and I think that people should be more-not less-critical of themselves before they expose themselves to the public. Back to the titles. My first publication was My Rules, so named after the Black Flag song. My life was hearing people tell me what to do, telling me what I can and cannot do. I said, fuck it. Some idiots in San Francisco called me and said, "We're going to do this book, its called Hard Core California, we want some of your stuff.? So I sat in the darkroom for a long time making all these prints for this book for these motherfuckers, and I said, "y'know what, they fuckin' suck, they're not going to use anything that I like, I just know it. But, y'know, it's going to be the first punk book from California, I'll contribute and we'll see what happens.? A couple of months go by and they're still fucking around, and I hear what photos they're going to use and which ones they're not, so I said, fuck it, I'm going to make my own magazine. I called up people that had already made magazines, I called up Kevin Thatcher at Thrasher, and asked what it's going to cost me, "what do I have to do, I'm sick of this already, nobody's got any quality.? I was fucking spoiled. I was fourteen working at SkateBoarder magazine, there were full color pages being printed of my work, real quality stuff. Then after 1981 there were no more color magazines for awhile for me. You'll see in my book there's a period from late '80, early '81, from that point on for another two or three years they're all black and white photos because there was no place to print color photos. So I ended up putting the photos and the magazine out myself, because it was the only way I could get a measure of control, the only way I knew that it would get done right. That's been the nature of my books, doing it myself.

It's interesting you mention the period of black and white images in your books. There's so few photographers or books that work in both mediums, and you've really succeeded in implementing both.
Thanks, I appreciate that. And I'd like to pass a comment about that: Why do people have to specialize? Why do photo books have to be in one or the other, or focused on one subject? Why is everyone so freaked out, why are peoples tastes so such narrow? I'll tell you, The Idealist, this book is going to fuck people up. This book has variety. I have a good eye, it doesn't matter whether I'm shooting a band, or whether I'm shooting a girl, or a tree, or whether I'm shooting a sink. I know how to take a fucking picture, I know how to compose an image, and I know how to focus a fucking camera and decide which film to use. You look at magazines today where half the pictures are out of focus and they call it art. But you put a collection together of disparate images that are beautifully composed and in focus, and publishers question whether it makes any sense.

You say the book's going to fuck people up. How so?
It's not going to fuck anyone up the way my other books did, because my other books are very much in-your-face and rebellious. It's going to fuck people up because they might not know what to expect. I think that people will be confused by it because they don't understand the variety of images between two covers by one photographer. I've already showed it to a few people and they don't know how to market it, just the usual shit, "it's nice but it needs to be more focused." Thirty-five percent of it will be skating and music stuff, and the rest are landscape compositions. Then again, everything I do, even the live music images, are landscapes to me, but these will be more conventional in nature. The Idealist is twenty years in the making, it's my life. People will either love it or they won't give a fuck about it.

I understand that you're not the sort of photographer who carries a camera around all the time and shoots thousands of frames. How do you approach taking an image?
With a lot of thought. I'll think long and hard about composition, and if I'm not motivated by what I'm seeing, I simply won't shoot. I fucking despise the amount of waste that goes on with so many photographers, shooting off miles of film for nothing. I would shoot jobs for major labels and they would expect me to come back with like four hundred chromes and I'd hand them one sheet, numbered one to twenty. "Shot number one is your cover, shot number two is your back cover, shot number three is the inside, shot number four is your first single, shot number five is your poster, shot number six is this, and that's it and it's done." But they're like, no, we want six hundred images so we can pick two good ones and use them everywhere. I'm like, look, I got the job done, let me have my money. If you don't like this-and don't crop my images, by the way-if you can't dig that, then I guess we don't work together again. Honestly, I don't work with anyone anymore. No one wants to work with me because I'm too difficult. I don't just hand in photos. They want photographers to take the shots and leave them there, and most of the photographers don't care. For me, business wise, I do care. I follow my projects all the way through to the end as often as I can. I'm not just an outsider to this shit, they're not just fucking hiring me to take an image and get out of here, because if they are they don't hire me. And I don't need any fucking art director shooting with me either or a staff of assistants. No one's going to load my fucking film. I don't trust anyone to do that other than me. No one's going to focus my camera other than me. It's me and my backpack, and maybe sometimes a friend to watch my back if I'm shooting in a bad section of town.

When will The Idealist be available?
Most likely some time before next fall. I'll see if there's interest from outside publishers, but I'll probably do it myself.

You actually tried shopping the earlier books to other publishers but met a lot of resistance. What was the nature of the resistance?
The main thing was that they just didn't think there was an audience, that people in the particular age group and who were interested in these things just don't go into bookstores and buy books. Other people thought, this is great, but there's too much variety in between the covers. If it was a hip hop book, even Little, Brown was considering doing three separate editions, but I was insistent that it had to be all together. People just didn't get it. As cool as people think they are, they're not. There're very few people who are actually cool in this world, in my opinion.

You received a profile in Aperture magazine [seminal, serious photo publication], didn't you.
That's right. Actually the guy who wrote the review was a skateboarder himself at one time and is a pretty respected photographer now, Nick Waplington, and he'd always looked up to my pictures as a kid so it was very easy for him to write the review. Unfortunately, he had a totally invalid critique in his review of my book, which was that I didn't portray women fairly within the themes or within the book. To me this is totally stupid, and wrong and pathetic. I never said my book was a complete history, it was people that were my particular heroes, and who were the heroes of the era. I didn't shoot every band that I wanted to, there's several other bands I would have loved to have in there, but I didn't get the opportunity to shoot at their peak. Every band in Fuck You Heroes was shot at their peak in the book. That book represents a very important era in time in all those people's careers.

The defining parts.
Absolutely. That's why I chose the lyrics and quotes from the period those photos were taken. It's a real historical document that also happens to have some beautiful images along with it. To me, a lot of the stuff I compiled in the back is what motivated me to take the images that I did. The guy at Aperture said there should be more women in the book-one other reviewer as well, I have to admit, said the same thing-they were really down on the Darlene photo [Ice-T's provocatively dressed girlfriend brandishing a huge gun on the cover of Power]. More B-Boys picked up that record and made Ice-T a star because of that photo than he could ever imagine. It's probably my least favorite photo in the entire book though, I almost didn't want to use it.

It's one of your most famous shots.
Certainly, so how could I deny that in my own book? Just like, how could I deny putting Suicidal Tendencies in there? I had to be fair. Even if I think Suicidal Tendencies are assholes when the book came out, they were very important when I took that picture. I had to be fair and give myself some credit. And it's only fair that there weren't the women in there that people might expect. There was no woman in skateboarding that made the impact that Tony Alva, Jay Adams, Steve Olson, Wally Inouye, and Stacy Peralta did. There was no woman in skateboarding that had the impact of any one of those guys. There was no woman in punk rock that had the impact of Ian MacKaye, Henry Rollins, Jello Biafra, Greg Ginn, Chuck Dukowski. I'm sorry, I'm literally sorry that they didn't have the impact, but that's a fact. I?m sorry that Queen Latifah or Salt N' Pepa did not have the impact or the importance to me that did LL Cool J, Chuck D, Ice Cube, KRS One or Public Enemy. For someone to say that my book is invalid because it doesn't have women often enough, well there's tons of bands and skaters that I didn't represent. That book is about a very specific group of people that motivated me, and motivated others, in a very particular way. That's it.

It seems like the guy didn't read the book's preface.
Apparently not. And it's my fucking book, my fucking viewpoint. People get down on fanzines because they don't like their viewpoints-people shouldn't fucking buy them if they don't like their viewpoints. If they don't like my viewpoint, then they should look somewhere else for another one.

For more information on Glen's books etc., contact ConSafos Press, P.O. Box 931568 Los Angeles, CA 90093, USA (213) 883-1990; or check out Glen?s website:
(10 pages including 3 full page B&W photos from F.Y.H.)