(This piece was originally written for BBC Culture)
Glen E Friedman turned his teenage years as a skateboarder in 1970s California into a lifelong career. It wasn’t as a skateboarder, however – Friedman might have been passionate about the pastime, but it was his skill as a photographer that has brought him international recognition. It’s not only for his skateboarding photographs – which were so good they made him the youngest-ever staff member of Skateboarder magazine – but also at the forefront of two vital music cultures; the 1980s hardcore punk scene blazed by bands such as Black Flag, Dead Kennedys and Minor Threat, and as one of the first photographers to cover the burgeoning hip hop scene.
Friedman began taking photos of his friends skating in an area of Los Angeles that became known as Dogtown. “I was 14 when I got my first picture published. Once I started getting published, I thought ‘I want to keep getting my stuff in the magazine’, ‘cos my stuff was good and it was fun to do it. And to go to these spots and to be able shoot things in a way that maybe somebody else couldn’t… It was competitive just like any print medium was back then.”
“I was hanging out with friends, and I wanted to get pictures in the magazine ‘cos I knew what they were doing was so much better than what anyone else was doing, and I wanted to be a part of exposing that, and I was so inspired by what they were doing, I wanted to show it to the world.”
After skateboarding, Freidman also began to document the beginnings of the US post-punk movement, bands which combined live ferocity with progressive politics, such as Minor Threat, the band spearheaded by future Fugazi frontman Ian Mackaye. “When I started taking punk rock photos they were my friends in the bands, and I loved the music and it was vital to me, I was not an outsider trying to document some weird goings on in nightclubs or garages.”
By the mid-1980s, Friedman was starting to explore the nascent hip hop scene, something he saw as a natural extension to his photos of the skateboarding and punk scenes.
“By the time I got into hip hop a lot of people knew who I was within scenes, there’s a lot of similar circles,” he says. “Underground people know each other in different ways. Even from the skateboarding days to the punk rock days, a lot of those guys who started bands had been skateboarders. I actually had a bit of entrée, they knew who I was.”
Friedman captured many of early hip hop’s leading lights, from the Beastie Boys to Run DMC, Ice-T to Public Enemy. “People like Hank Shocklee [from hip hop group The Bomb Squad] and Chuck D [Public Enemy] had seen My Rules the ‘zine, they worked in a record store. Those guys knew how important record covers were, and that’s why they wanted me to do their first stuff, and I was honoured to do it because I knew their first album as going to be as important as The Clash’s first album. I felt it, I loved the music, I could do nothing but be part of that first album for them and work with them and help them bring their vision to life. And they respected the art. ‘Glen knows what he’s doing, let’s give him some ideas and let’s all work together.’ That’s what I always do with artists.”
Friedman’s photos now grace archives in institutions such as New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art – but he rarely shoots these days. “My archive does well for me, people come to me for documentaries and books and magazines still use the old photos and serious collectors come for prints and that’s how I lived off my photography my whole life.
I’ll shoot at a skate park one day if someone’s radical and incredible and even if maybe some young guy’s riding and is amazing and that needs to be done. But other than that I’m happy to watch on and let somebody else to do it.”
Friedman still shoots on film, and the all-manual cameras he used to document the skateparks and gigs from his early career; he doesn’t understand today’s gig-going audiences, who view the show through their smartphone screens, constantly documenting their lives. “That’s horrible. I feel sorry for them. I feel the opposite, I feel like I don’t need to document, I just need to use my memory a little bit and enjoy the moment. I love taking pictures. But when I see 50 photographers in a room, or even four, it’s like, ‘Oh, I’ll probably do a better job than any of these people here, but I don’t want photographers in my background’. Now they’re in your foreground!”
The live shots of bands such as Henry Rollins’ Black Flag are visceral and exciting; many of the gigs look to have been captured in makeshift venues and parties, and Friedman’s camera feels like the only one there. Many of these shots were included in Friedman’s iconic fanzine, My Rules.
“Usually I went to gigs without a camera, I had a camera with me less than half the time, maybe a quarter of the time I went to shows, maybe a tenth of the time,” says Friedman. “I went to shows where I didn’t take my camera. Number one there wasn’t a reason to take pictures of bands again and again – I wasn’t a documentarian – I was trying to spread what was inspiring me, I would take it to the best shows the shows I liked the most. At some times people were disappointed I didn’t have my camera. ‘How come you’re here Glen, you don’t have your camera?”… I wasn’t so articulate back then, but the truth was their bands were lame and I didn’t need to take photos of them.”
* Glen E Friedman’s My Rules is currently on Show at the ATP Gallery in Henrietta Street, London WC2 until 18 January. The book ‘My Rules’ (Rizzoli Press) is available to buy now.
Many thanks to Glen E Friedman and ATP for allowing me to re-post the photos.