Glen E. Friedman has built his legendary career by photographing the most important counter-culture heroes of the past forty years. His iconic images have become the definitive photographs of the early days of skateboarding, punk rock and hip hop. Friedman’s attraction to rebellion, originality and authenticity has placed him at the forefront of these social movements and his personal involvement in the culture always comes through in his work. Glen E. Friedman is the real deal and I’m fortunate to be able to share this interview with you.
Nick Santora: How did you have the presence of mind to put yourself in the right place at the right time on several occasions and then document it? Did you have any idea that your work would have such an impact?
Glen E. Friedman: I had no idea that my work would do what it did, but in my mind I knew that it was important. At least in my mind it was important. And everyone can say it’s the right place at the right time, but looking back, I didn’t know it was the right time. It was just what was going on.
There were plenty of photographers at a lot of these events, but I happened to get better pictures and they happened to be the ones that meant the most. Maybe I made them mean the most, or I took the best photos, or maybe they became more important later? I don’t know. Shephard Fairey said, ‘Sometimes the image makes the time important.’
The aesthetics of the images I would compose were important to me. I also grew up on National Geographic, Surfer and Sports Illustrated. This was really high-end, beautiful photography in their eras. I had an appreciation of what I thought was good and I wanted to bring that to whatever I did.
In the beginning, you were documenting things that you weren’t even seeing in Skateboarder Magazine, right?
I always shot for myself and I would sell to magazines and do everything after the fact. That’s how I did it. I was on a retainer at Skateboarder, but I was just a teenager. I was still in high school. I was shooting the contests for them, but they were the only assignments. Everything else was just shoot something, send it in, and hopefully they publish it.
I was on your site and saw that skate photo on the bottom right hand corner so I figured I’d read up on that. The detail you had where the Vans shoe came from kind of fucked me up. Like I never knew that part of the story and thought that was pretty amazing. That is why I got back to you pretty quickly.
Thank you. You’re talking about the History Of Skateboarding Sneakers article?
Yeah. Obviously you know that I was a part of that scene. I actually told the lady at the Vans store in Santa Monica (this was probably in 1976 or even ‘75), ‘You know the most famous skateboarders in the world are riding your shoes? You guys should probably put an ad in a magazine. You should take advantage of this!’ I told them before they knew who anyone was or what was going on. About a year later they caught on. I’m sure no one remembers I was the one who told them that, but I was a thirteen year old kid and pretty savvy with shit like that back then. I told them and then everything began to happen.
In some of the pictures, people think they [the skaters] are wearing Vans, but they could have been Topsiders or whatever. The only reason everyone wore Vans back then was because they were so cheap. They were $6.00 and $7.00 if you gave them your old materials, your old corduroy or whatever. I think they were maybe $7.00 or $8.00 if you had them custom-made or two toned; if you picked out different colors.
I think Wentzle Ruml was the first to do two-toned [Vans] and then Tony Alva wore them. Tony made them famous because Tony was more popular than Wentzle. You would send a note to the factory and then get them back in a week or so because they handmade them at the factory. I was the first one to ever order the light blue and dark blue together and I thought that was pretty cool.
It was all very reasonable and since skaters wore out their shoes so quickly, Vans were very popular. Nobody ever got them because they were the best shoes. They got them because they were cheap. As soon as anyone got any money or sponsors, they bought Nike and adidas. The Dogtown guys certainly couldn’t afford anything more than Vans.
Were you still photographing skaters during the punk rock and hip hop eras of the 1980’s or did that phase out at some point?
I was doing everything at the same time. I still shot skating when hip hop was going on, and I still shot punk while hip hop was going on. Just by the natural ways they were growing, it was kind of one thing lead to another. They were peaking at different times. Skateboarding really peaked in the late 70s and punk rock peaked in the early 80s, and then hip hop peaked in the mid 80’s, so there definitely was overlap. I shot Fugazi up until their last American show. I shot Ice-T pretty late. I shot hip hop into the 90s. Skateboarding I still shoot today. I just don’t do it as often.
We’ve both spent some time at 298 Elizabeth Street. How did you hook up with Def Jam?
It was through the Beastie Boys. I knew the Beastie Boys as a punk rock band and they were coming to L.A. with Madonna just six months after I’d stopped working for Suicidal Tendencies. I had heard the Rock Hard EP and Cookie Puss, and I thought hip hop was cool. It was a new thing. I knew they were coming to Los Angeles, so I contacted them. I was so inspired by it [Hip Hop] and so disillusioned with my experience with trying to manage the band Suicidal Tendencies, who I helped make really successful and did a good job with that. I got them on MTV and everything, then quit.
The Beastie Boys came to town and they had this attachment to this new shit that I’m hearing and really enjoying and it’s not taking the place of punk rock yet, but punk rock was getting kind of generic at the time. I did have that bad taste in my mouth from the Suicidal [Tendencies] experience, so I told these guys I’d hang out with them when they came to town. They had never been to L.A. before and were on Madonna’s coattails so I took them around and I thought what they were doing was really fun. Those guys were just totally entertaining to be around. They had me crying of laughter every day. It’s just how they were back then. They were just hilarious, fun guys to be around. It was just a really fun thing.
When they got to L.A., neither Rick nor Russell were with them, so I kind of wore Russell’s backstage pass and felt that I was almost like his equivalent at the time. I had just finished bringing punk rock kind of mainstream, while Russell was bringing hip hop mainstream. I didn’t find that it was that far of a stretch for me to pretend that I was their manager at the time. Not that I was. They were only in town for a week. There was no album yet. There was no Licensed To Ill or anything. But they were in town and had never been to L.A. before, so I got them on some radio shows because I had my connections. We had a great time and took all these photos. I was inspired by their energy and their music, which was very progressive at that moment.
I took all these cool photos of them around L.A. with the fish-eye lens and other stuff I’m used to working with. I took character shots and fun stuff. I sent all the proof sheets to New York and Rick and Russell loved them. They just loved everything about them. Rick had known my stuff because he had seen My Rules, the zine I had made and my Black Flag stuff, and was really stoked and excited that I had shot them.
From that point on, when anyone who was affiliated with Rush came to California, they would hang out with me. Rick and Russell came to town with Run DMC when they went on American Bandstand, and I think that’s when we all met face to face for the first time. I just hit it off with those guys immediately. We were really good friends right away. I did a photo session with them and everyone really loved it. I was enrolled at UCLA and from that point on, I was basically Def Jam’s west coast representative.
The Beastie Boys ended up leaving Def Jam and moving to L.A. to record Paul’s Boutique, right?
Yes, but that was a few years later and you have to understand something. It was such a progressive, insane time with so much stuff going on. Look back at your record collection and look at all the hit records that came out in 1986 or 1987 that DJ’s still play today. People refer to it as the ‘Golden Era Of Hip Hop.’ All those records are alive and will kick the shit out of every single record at a club when they come on, to this day. I’m talking about Poetry by Boogie Down Productions, Eric B. Is President, The New Style, Peter Piper… I’m talking about the ‘Golden Era Of Hip Hop.’ A big hit would come out every two weeks. There would be a new hot record every month. It was just moving very fast. After 1988 you’re hard pressed to find a couple good records a year. It was just an important era in hip hop. The Beastie Boys moving to L.A. was a whole different era that was past the ‘Golden Age of Hip Hop.’ Not that it wasn’t worthy and great stuff; it was incredible stuff. It was just a different time.
Did you know any of these guys were going to be huge superstars when you first met them?
I didn’t know anyone was going to be a superstar. In fact, I didn’t think anyone would be a superstar. It was just people’s attitudes that I appreciated the fact they were doing things no one else was doing at all. That was very exciting and inspiring to me so I figured that I should do my duty. I was close to these people so I wanted to portray this in a way that was going to turn other people on to it; let other people know that there was something really fucking cool going on that they should know about.
There’s so much other bullshit dribble going on now, at the moment.
Is it hard to find true authenticity now?
Look at the golden age of punk rock in L.A. in say ’80-’82. You would go to a show and bands would all sound really different. They were all punk and some were hardcore punk, but different melodies, different tempos of songs, the lyrics were all really different and intriguing and interesting, and just different from anything that had been done before. By 1984, a lot of shit sounded alike in punk rock. It’s like you’ve already gone through it, or that initial creative impetus is gone. I’m sure there are people out there being creative, but as time goes on, particularly with Rock N’ Roll, the number of chords and transitions and different things you can do are infinite, but after a while a lot of it eventually starts to sound more and more alike.
This sounds similar to me trying to watch the Slam Dunk Contest the other day. What dunks are left for these guys to do that I haven’t seen before?
That’s a good analogy because yeah, how much further can they take it? I mean, hip hop had gone really far out of this world. By the time Rebel Without A Pause came out you were like, ‘What the fuck is that?’ It came out of nowhere and every adult hated it because of that whining siren sound in the beginning, and every kid loved it. It was so progressive and so different that no one had even thought of it before. It was just like an amazing thing and you’re thinking, ‘What can anyone do beyond this?’ Then another record would come out and outdo it. It was unbelievable! I remember being in a club and hearing N.W.A.’s Fuck The Police and you’re just like, ‘Ok. It can’t go any further than this. There’s no way.’ But they were breaking down a barrier. They were doing something really progressive and amazing that had never been done to that degree before.
Ice-T was a good friend who rapped about cops and crime and all that stuff, but Fuck The Police was like, ‘You gotta be kidding me?!’ It was incredible. We loved it and it was like, ‘Where’s it gonna go?’ Then the Beasties came out with Check Your Head. There’s stuff going on that’s really progressive and taking it to another level. The Beasties came from a punk rock background and were just taking it wherever their instincts took them, as well as N.W.A. and whoever else broke barriers. The skaters too, just moving things forward. Creative people will do that and they’ll do it for as long as they have those juices in them. It’s much harder obviously to be an originator.
What are the keys to making shit happen for yourself?
Follow your heart. It sounds corny and cliché but it’s what you have to do. If you love it, you’ll do well. You practice and rehearse. I used to tell hip hop artists this because at one point everyone was making rap records. I’d ask, ‘Did you really listen to I Ain’t No Joke and think your record was better than that?’ Why would you do something if someone’s already done it better than you? I can’t just rehash or do what someone else did. I have to do what I do and what only I can do. You have to show your unique perspective. You have to make your shit stand out above the rest. And if you can’t do that in your chosen field, then you need to move on to another one. You want to inspire people.
I was photographing bands and I loved what I was doing. Then one day I thought my pictures were way better than what I’d seen in any of these fucking magazines. Head and shoulders above the rest. So what am I gonna do about that? Well, I contacted music magazines just from looking at the insides of the magazine and saying, ‘Well who do I send this to? Who do I contact? I’ll tell them I got this stuff.’ Well I sent my shit to everyone and no one published it because they didn’t think it was good or they weren’t interested in the music at the time. Was it necessarily my photos? It might have been, or it might have been the music itself, which it usually was. They didn’t have an interest in it.
So I’m listening to my favorite records and I’m looking at the back cover and thinking, let me call this fucking record company. I heard they’re gonna be putting out this album by this band and I have photos of them. I called up Lisa Fancher, I was just a skateboarding photographer and I said, ‘I heard you’re doing this Adolescents album. I got your name off the back of the Circle Jerks album. Are you interested in seeing this shit?’ And she said, ‘Yeah, I have no pictures of them. Sure. That would be great.’ I went and showed her some of my pictures and she was like, ‘I’ll give you fifty bucks to do their album cover.’ It was the first album cover I ever did.
You never relied on anyone finding you. You always went after it?
Why does anyone have to find you? Who gives a shit about you? No one gave a shit about me and a lot of people still don’t give a shit about me. It doesn’t matter. That’s just life. You gotta work for it. If you want it, you gotta work for it. Period. My shit doesn’t just sell because I know the right person or I was in the right place. It doesn’t become iconic because of who I know. I fucking worked at that shit and I practiced it and I put my heart into it. I’m looking at my new book and anyone who looks at this has fucking got to be in awe. It’s gonna be fucking incredible. It’s mind-boggling to me that all these images are in one place.
Tell me more about the new book.
That’s coming out in September. It’s a combination of photos from Fuck You Heroes and Fuck You Too, both in one book. Plus about thirty percent that no one’s ever seen before. These are photos that back then I didn’t think were cool and now have a different meaning. Like that shot of LL Cool J on the bench the first time I met him in 1985 at Madison Square Park, when he only had one 12″ single out and didn’t have an album out yet. I thought he was a great artist and an incredible kid, but he was shy and I barely knew him and he hadn’t done any photo sessions yet. I wanted to make him look how I thought he should look, how I thought I could turn on other people to what he was doing. So there was a certain toughness that had to come across an image. There was a hardcore aspect of him that I wanted to bring across. I got that picture on the bench and it’s a badass photo. Well, there were thirty five other shots on the roll and a lot of them he just looked too soft. This is a fucking fifteen year old kid. He just didn’t look like the hard-ass that I wanted everyone to see.
That’s cool. Now after his long career we can look back at those first candid shots…
That’s exactly the point. You look back at it and you see him in the same pose, but with a smile, it looks cool. There’s plenty of other great shots from that roll that will be in this book. Probably another four shots off that very same roll of film, if not five that no one’s ever seen. There’s some Beasties shots, a Tony Alva shot of frontside air that’s not as high as you’d like it to be and it’s a little bit grainy or whatever, but it has the sunset and it’s just beautiful. I got a photograph that no one’s ever seen that might have been a classic. That will be a two page spread next to an essay he [Tony Alva] wrote for the book. There are some Run DMC images that no one’s ever seen and particularly one comes to mind of Jam Master Jay. It’s just a nice portrait of him. When people see it, they’re just gonna turn one page after the other… So I think people are going to be like fuuuckk!
You know what I like to do with shit now? I like to make my shit undeniable. That’s what I’m into.
Over the years, from the time I was a kid first trying to get stuff in the magazine, they never printed the best shots. They never printed the ones that I liked the most. Even though I got published, it was never the best shot of the day, or very rarely. Even with album covers. You look at It Takes A Nation Of Millions…. It’s the most important hip hop album of all-time, arguably. The photograph they used on the cover? I threatened to scratch the negative. I didn’t like that photo. It was the wrong one. They picked the wrong one for a valid reason, but it was bad compared to the other shots that I had.
Even over the years as I gained notoriety and have been published and created all these iconic images, fucking shitheads are always gonna pick the wrong photo. So when I have a chance to make my own book, especially now, my goal is to make what I do undeniable. I have higher standards and I think everyone should.
Are you a lover or a hater?
I’m not a hater at all. I just have high standards. I do love a lot of stuff, but I don’t have any love for shit that’s just wasting time and space. I’m not a hater. I don’t hate the Internet. I think the Internet is great for a lot of things, but with all the great comes a lot of shit too. That’s the problem. You just have to wade through all the shit to get to the great things. I’m just grateful that what I thought was great and inspiring turned out to be for many people until this day.