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Glen E Friedman Kent Senatore
Kent Senatore, Turning Point Ramp, April 1979Public Enemy, December 1986

Glen E Friedman: playing by his own rules

The subculture photographer who played witness to LA’s skate and NY’s burgeoning music scenes talks new appropriations and our next gen renegades

Glen E Friedman is punk rock’s very own Zelig; a photographer who had the insanely good fortune to be around at the birth of not just skate culture but the early days of hardcore and hip hop. As a teenager he snapped his mates Jay Adams and Tony Alva in the empty pools of West Los Angeles’ Dogtown, then covered the rise of Black Flag through to Fugazi before working as Def Jam’s in-house photographer, shooting everyone from LL Cool J and Ice T to Run DMC. He’s behind legions of iconic shots, including the covers of Beastie Boys’ “Check Your Head”, Public Enemy’s “It Takes A Nation of Millions…” and Minor Threat’s “Salad Days”. Friedman also produced Suicidal Tendencies’ 1983 debut and managed the band, as well being heavily involved in 2001’s cult Dogtown and Z Boys documentary and taking a key part in the Occupy movement. His legacy is unmatched, starting out on the pages of Skateboarder magazine and Thrasher, he now has prints hanging on the hallowed walled of the Smithsonian in Washington DC and the Met in New York, all bringing due attention to the most important American subcultures of the past five decades.

This weekend he opened his first UK exhibition in almost 20 years in conjunction with ATP. My Rules accompanies his new Shepard Fairey-designed book, which takes its name from Friedman’s cult 1982 fanzine. It contains the best of 1994’s Fuck You Heroes and 1996’s Fuck You Too, as well as over 100 never-before-published works, including pictures of Bad Brains, Dead Kennedy’s Jello Biafra, The Germs and Circle Jerks and newer images of Pussy Riot, OFF! and Noam Chomsky. We caught up with Friedman at the launch of this seminal, must-see show.

Why has it been so long since your last UK exhibition?

Glen E Friedman: It takes a lot of hard working people for a good show to come about and I don’t believe in putting something new out just because it’s the new season. The ATP people have really gone overboard in a great way.

Could you tell us about the audio installations that make up part of the show?

Glen E Friedman: There are essays in the new book [by my subjects] about their inspirations during the period that we worked together. Most of these guys are all my friends, ranging from Rakim to Tony Alva to Duane Peters to Adam Horovitz and Rick Rubin and Henry Rollins. Jay Adams, who recently passed – one of my old, dear friends – we have one room dedicated to him, a memorial room. There’s only one photo in the room and we have most of the interview that I did with him, we just play the whole thing, him and I talking for 45 minutes – we talked several times to make the essay. It’s one of the last lengthy times I talked to him.

Lady Gaga and Bruno Mars have both been seen wearing Suicidal Tendencies shirts – how do you feel about the mainstream’s appropriation of a counter culture that you were so involved in?

Glen E Friedman: When we were involved in the scenes one could only hope that the mainstream would catch on. Not to appropriate it and capitalise on it – but with the good comes the bad. If there were 200 hardcore punk rockers back in 1979 in LA some of them were people there to just hang out – not everyone back then was hardcore, not every band back then was good! But when something’s successful and inspiring, good people and bad people are gonna be inspired by it. Would I rather no-one be inspired by it? I’m not happy that it’s co-opted, but that’s a sign of success. The truth is, with all the bad, there is a little bit more good to it – it’s worth it, because you just want more good in the world.

There are pictures in My Rules of the last ever Germs show in 1980 in Los Angeles – what do you remember from that night?

Glen E Friedman: I’d seem them one time before at The Hong Kong and also as the Darby Crash band – after he came back from England he got inspired by Adam Ant and the Germs would no longer play so he started the Darby Crash Band – Pat Smear was in that band too. He knew I was going to be shooting pictures that night, and I didn’t know it was going to be the last one - I thought it was the first reunion show. I was right at the front and I was really excited, they were playing fantastic and I was shooting a lot of photos. I used flash back them – I was almost overdoing it. Darby knew that I was going to be photographing and I think he got embarrassed at one point because the flash was going off so much – so I stopped taking pictures, that was his request. All my best Germs photos have been lost – all the ones you’ve seen are not the best ones. The best ones were sent to a magazine and lost and never published and ever found again. It was a huge magazine that ended up doing a very exploitative punk rock article. It was like, a year after the show. It was a great show and I saw him [Darby Crash] after in the parking lot and then a week later, he was gone – just a week later he killed himself, it was crazy.

“The United States respects almost no architecture. The original Zephyr shop in Santa Monica did get landmarked, so they couldn’t tear it down, but they gutted the whole thing and made it into a coffee shop – it’s just a travesty” – Glen E Friedman

The Rom Skatepark in Essex has just been given heritage status – does the US have the same kind of respect for skate culture?

Glen E Friedman: Absolutely not – the United States respects almost no architecture. The original Zephyr shop in Santa Monica did get landmarked, so they couldn’t tear it down, but they gutted the whole thing and made it into a coffee shop – it’s just a travesty. When I was kid the first skate park that opened was maybe the first one in the world and we drove three hours to get there – that place should be around, but it isn’t. It was in Carlsbad, California, in the middle of an area that was nothing but mostly desert. They raced cars out there. In London it seems like the level of intelligence is a lot higher than it is in the States. I went to Rom in 1980 – my gift for my high school graduation was a trip to London and I just called up the local skate shop. Because I was bit of an underground cult figure I could go anywhere in the world and a group of guys would come and show me around.

Which contemporary musicians or activists do you think share the same anti-authoritarian stance as the artists you photographed like Black Flag, Fugazi and Ice T?

Glen E Friedman: The women in Pussy Riot – they’re doing things and speaking out about what’s going on in their country, for people whose normal lives are being criminalised because of a fascist government state. They’re really great women. I spoke to Nadia (Tolokonnikova) just yesterday and asked her if she saw the book and she said “Oh, yeah, but we look a little too serious!” Quite frankly, I don’t think young people are serious enough these days. So much is spoon-fed - they don’t have to fight for any information, it’s all at their fingertips and everything is just so lackadaisical. People think that success just comes from just being at the right place at the right time and that really has nothing to do with any real success or any real artist. The real shit is stuff that people work at.

My Rules is open until 18 January, 2015 at 14 Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, London