Here’s a riddle for you: how do photos of something as transitory as youth culture stay relevant long past their era? How do they keep inspiring; how do they endure past the youth of their own subjects, become something other than charming relics, a faded tattoo from another lifetime?
The answer is Glen Friedman. Driven by a notion of personal responsibility, a commitment to his art form and the unrelenting passion of a true fan, Friedman has brought us some of the most iconic photos from the skateboarding, punk rock and hip hop worlds.
But his photos do more than document moments in the genesis of now-ubiquitous subcultures. Need proof? Fuck You All, a traveling exhibition of Friedman’s work, is now in its 13th year, and features photos up to 30 years old. The show recently came to San Francisco and drew as big a crowd as any contemporary art opening.
We recently caught up with Friedman to discuss his prolific career, the ideals that motivate him and the movements that inspire him. We also talk about both his collaboration with Shepard Fairey, and how his photos have changed over time.
This is part one of a two-part interview by Hi-Fructose correspondent Lauren Quinn.
You’ve talked before about your work being inspired by the idea of personal responsibility. When you were starting your career, you felt like you were witnessing something that had never been seen before, and that it was your duty to share it with people. And that idea has guided a lot of your career. Can you talk a bit about the notion of personal responsibility in your work?
I don’t know what it is, maybe just being a child of the 60s, but I felt so inspired by those things that were going on around me. Skateboarding gave me my own life, separate from my family, separate from everything else. And not just skateboarding, but the way it was developing. It got to really marinate in its own juices, to become something incredibly special. And I thought I was privileged to be a part of that.
It was covered in the magazines (in Skateboarder Magazine, to some degree, and by Craig Stecyk), but at the same time, not to the degree I thought it should be, or to what I was witnessing on a daily basis. It was so awe-inspiring, I just felt like it was my responsibility to do something. Just like when you vote for the right person in an election, you’re trying to inspire the planet or the state to be a better thing than it is. And this was my vote into how things should go.
When punk rock came around a few years later, it was even more inspiring, because you were learning about politics and ways of the world. I learned so much from punk rock, and it’s given me so much—so much outlet, so much satisfaction, knowing that there were other people not happy with what was going on around them. And the idea that they could facilitate some kind of change in the world was really inspiring.
And they were doing it on their own: starting their own scene, doing their own thing, having their own shows, playing their own music, and it sounded like nothing else at the time. And I wanted other people to know about these bands… So to be able to get some of these punk rock bands that had never had much coverage outside of their own locals areas or fanzines into Skateboarder Magazine was really exciting for me, because I knew I would be helping them. And it was exciting for them, because they were reaching people they never thought they would reach.
And with hip hop, it went on from there. Hip hop was the first thing I dealt with that was becoming commercially successful while I was involved in it. But to be able to help it move over from not just urban kids, but to make it suburban and available to people all over the world—to be able to use my credibility to get those bands into press that otherwise might not have covered them, it was again like my responsibility. This was black kids’ version of punk rock. It was a very simple music that was really exciting and again totally revolutionary. And I was excited to be a part of it. And the fact that it was politically conscious—because I had become so heavily politicized from punk rock—it was that much more exciting to get those words and that perspective out, and to get to share it with people who might not ever have heard of it.
At first glance, the scenes you’ve cover seem really disparate. But the common theme is the attitude, the Fuck You attitude, which became the name of shows and books of yours. Can you talk about that attitude and where, if anywhere, you’re seeing that today.
The Fuck You attitude is really just a general youth attitude, isn’t it? Wanting to not be controlled by other people, not told what to do, and really standing up for yourself, making your voice be heard in one way or another.
I think today, it definitely exists. In every political movement, it’s still out there. I don’t know if it’s as intense or creative as it once was, just because of the nature of media nowadays. People are kind of spoiled, they’ve seen a lot of stuff, and it’s so much easier to get stuff out there. Like we talked earlier about scenes and cultures being able to marinate in their own juices, develop on their own for awhile. But now as soon as something’s hot, anyone around the world can find out about it in the matter of hitting a return key. Which might not allow things to develop to the point that they can get really, really intense. They get put out there a little sooner, generally, without that intensity or concentrated form of the culture. Will it inspire as much, will it be as great; will it have as much depth to it as it did in the past? I don’t know.
But it happened back then, and certainly I’m still inspired by those times. And I’m happy that it still inspires other people. It seems as though there was something worthwhile there. When people started dressing punk or playing in punk bands and getting into hip hop, no one ever thought it was something that was going to stick around. No one ever thought they’d make a living off it; they just did it because they loved it and they had it in their hearts to do it. It wasn’t commercially motivated; it was very pure. People talk about doing things DIY, but to even be able to say that word is a luxury. That was the only way to do it back then. It wasn’t a matter of choice for us.
Well, I’d say that’s why your photographs keep inspiring people. They might have been these little moments that came and passed 30 years ago, but there’s something still there for people.
I think it’s great that they do that, but I also know I worked really hard for them to do that. There were a lot of photographers doing the same thing I was throughout all those periods. I took it really seriously. I was very focused—no pun intended—on creating an image that would not only speak to the hardcore enthusiasts—which is the number one audience as far as I’m concerned—but equally to those people who have no interest whatsoever. And that it would pull them into it.
Because without pleasing the hardcore, it wouldn’t be pleasing to myself, because I was hardcore—I was a skateboarder, a punk rocker, a hip hop fan. If I could make myself happy with the photos, but also be enough of an artisan to be able to create an image that was composed; that showed a character that any human being could relate to; that another artist would respect if they took the time to look and see that there was a composition involved; that it was pretty well-thought-out, even with all the chaos going on in the image—I was always hoping that it would speak to people for a long time to come. Did I actually think it would? No. (Laughs)
I just did it in the moment because I thought it would be important for the moment, to inspire people at that time, not in the future. I didn’t know that at all! It’s lovely; it’s a great thing that it happened. It’s done ten times more than I ever thought it would, and in a different way than I thought it would. Again, I was trying to inspire people at the time to get up off their asses and get involved in what was going on. And it has done that for 30 years, the same photos. It’s great; it does what you wanted it to do: it teaches people; it inspires people with that rebellious spirit.
Check back for part two of this interview coming up soon, here on Hi-Fructose.
Glen E. Friedman’s “Fuck You All” is now on view at 941 Geary in San Francisco.