Idealist Propaganda: The Raw Power of Glen E. Friedman

Photos by Erin Broadley. Click images for entire Idealist Propaganda slideshow.

"Search and Destroy" funnels out onto the 10:30 p.m. Saturday Sunset Blvd. sidewalk, violently greeting late-arrivals to Glen E. Friedman's Idealist Propaganda exhibit. Iggy's cocaine cacophony carves up Tymphanic cavities. Like a pistol gripped power drill, James Williamson's guitar rattles the window panes of the poor saps staying at the Echo Park Super 8, adjacent to Shepard Fairey's Subliminal Projects gallery. Good luck trying to turn in early when confronted with the one-two assault of The Stooges, plus the 100+ Dewars-drunk art geeks serried into the small space--among the thousand-plus bold-faced names and miscellaneous, vivid characters that poured in during the three hour opening. 

It's a sonic coincidence too appropriate to be apocryphal, not even for the most blocked journalist desperate for a lead. And not just because "Search and Destroy" donated the bricks for the punks to toss only a few years later---a movement that Friedman so poignantly captured with his seminal shots of Fugazi, Black Flag, Minor Threat, Bad Brains, Suicidal Tendencies, et al. But because "Raw Power" is the most pithy phrase you could use to summarize the aesthetic strand running through all of the 46-year-old Friedman's collected works.

As Friedman readily admits, the intensity is intended--and seeing his

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career condensed into retrospective form, it's impossible to avoid.

Forget "in your face" or "life-affirming" or any of the other hackneyed

descriptions lazily ascribed to the material, this is some kick you in

the kidneys, tattoo your teeth-type shit. Friedman got it and it's all

there. The Check Your Head-era Beasties, nose-picking next to

craggy ruins and leafy California palms. A maniacal Henry Rollins

frothing at the helm of Black Flag. Public Enemy shrouded in shadows,

assault weapons and beat automobiles, at the height of the their Yo! Bumrush the Show menace.

Run DMC, seemingly confirming the veracity of the phrase: Tougher than

Leather. Friedman's depressingly precocious Dogtown & Z-Boys

shots, Tony Alva and Jay Adams hurtling through drained swimming pools,

tempting paralysis and gravity with a dazzling grace. Material from his

most recent Recognize Series, filled with transcendent shots of blissful marshmallow clouds contrasting cold blue sky.

Idealist Propaganda: The Raw Power of Glen E. Friedman

And the crowd, well, "eclectic" wouldn't suffice. Russell Simmons and

Brett Ratner were there, but somehow, they were the least interesting

people to observe. It was one of those only in L.A. or New York type

deals: 9-year-olds in camo jackets, faux hawks and Obey T-shirts.

Enough scarves for a decade in the Swiss Alps, despite tolerable 50

degree weather. Alabaster skinned, azure-eyed art students wearing

Michelin-lipped scowls, faraway looks and leather. Ziggy Stardust-aping

glam rockers with purple pompadours, scrotum-strangling black pants,

and zebra blouses. Hipster moms precariously cradling new borns to

their breasts. Fleet Foxes impersonators with shaggy beards and

tattered wool-knit caps and Khaffiyehs. I'd go on, but that's what the

slideshow's for.

Visibly uncomfortable in the role of cynosure, Friedman loomed

largest: a West LA skate-punk approaching middle-age, still rocking the uniform

of jeans, Converse and a plaid flannel buttoned-up to the

neck---Tim Burton shock of hair on his head, graciously handling all autograph requests and gawking. It had to

be weird, attending an obscenely packed celebration for your first career

retrospective, presented by one of your most prominent disciples. The

price tags on even the smallest piece ran in upwards of a grand, his

radicalism burnished with a certain post-millennial respectability. I

interviewed Friedman (see below), but really, the guy doesn't need to

say a word. Just go see the exhibit sometime between now and January 9. Raw power indeed.

L.A. Weekly: Your photos captured some of the most iconic movements and

trends of the last 30 years: The Dogtown skaters, the rise of hardcore

and the early Def Jam years of hip-hop. Do you still consider it

possible for such independent-minded sub-cultures to flourish today?

Glen E. Friedman: It's still out there in different areas. It's kind of weird that being

a punk is still considered rebellious 25 to 30 years after people

started doing it. Back then, it was really rebellious...

the late '70s, early '80s--people thought you were a freak from hell.

When rap got big, people were offended. People couldn't believe this

was music. No radio stations wanted to play it. People hated it and it

really was offensive to them and not accepted. Same with skateboarding.

Before it became what it is today, people thought it was a weird toy

for kids messing around in swimming pools and backyards, after hours

with no supervision. It freaked people the fuck out.

Why are those three things still considered rebellious today, 30 years

on? It makes you think something's going on with the culture--there's an

over-saturation, an over-necessity of media and the appetite of needing


All of a sudden things that are bullshit are being written about just

to fill space between ads. When I was a kid, they had three or four

magazines, not 300. Skateboarder

magazine was our bible, then a few more came along and they were

shitty, so no one read them.

It's nothing new, it's the dumbing down of

America by Republican governments, they've let the schools go to hell

since the days of Prop 13 (here in California). People didn't care about schools, they wanted lower

taxes and all of a sudden you have dumber people. People don't know

what's good and they accept what they're being fed, that in combination

with Cable TV and you have a purely capitalist, consumer society that

you have to survive in. I don't believe that stuff and I don't like it.

Instead, I try to inspire people to rebel against it in any way that I

can--through the inspiration of people who inspire me. I try to take

beautiful and characteristic pictures of people and hopefully lead them

towards the next step of wanting to do it themselves.

Where do you believe the best examples of independent, original thinking exist?

The best example is people on the Internet. There is a rebellious

Internet culture. A viable indie media exists, metro blogs might be

more commercial but they exist and they communicate on an underground

level. You can find like-minded people who are politically motivated

and they're radical.

Of course, there's a lot of bullshit, maybe more bullshit than not. But

you've got to figure that even if it's commercialized, back in the day

there were maybe 50 kids in the scene in New York and maybe 10 percent

of them were real hard core. All of a sudden if you have 20 million

punk kids with 10 percent hardcore, than you have 2,000,000 radical kids.

All boats rise with the tide, including the hardcore boat.

I promoted and articulated things that represented my life style, and how it inspired me. I always wanted to take

the most radical and intense photos I could. I also knew that if I took

them in particular way and paid attention to composition and character

it would come out well. So that you don't have to be a skater to

understand. I was lucky to live in a time when everyone was creative

and everyone that surrounded me energized me.

I wanted to share those stories during that vital period of those

scenes, when every band sounded different and skaters did their own

thing. That period of my life, between '75 and '88 or '89, things were

evolving rapidly. The sport was evolving in a week what now happens in

a year. Same with punk rock. Look at the bands that came up between '80

and '82, you

don't get stuff like that in six or 10 years today. Take hip-hop, the

golden era from '84-88, every single weekend there'd be a new hot

record. All those great records made in that time are still played today and

not that many from the '90s are still played today.

Are there are scenes or people that you'd like to shoot that you haven't yet?

None that can really come to mind. If I want to shoot it, I

do. Fifteen years ago, I would've liked to have shot Snoop or Trent Reznor.

But there's no use to shooting people who have already peaked, I leave

that to other people. I like to do it before other people do it.

Sometimes I'll shoot people after the fact, if they still inspire me.

Your retrospective is being held at Shepard Fairey's gallery.

To the casual observer, it would seem that the two of you share similar

themes and concerns in your work. Would you say that's a fair


Shepard has always been forthright in saying that he's been inspired

by my work for many years. Before he knew me, he co-opted my work for

some of his art. When he had access, he would ask permission to use it.

I like what he does--he's a craftsman who is very good at what he

does, even when he co-opts other people's work, he doesn't distort it,

he lets it serve its original purpose. Even if he's borrowing imagery

from earlier decades, he's using it for the same rebellious feeling, he's not

doing it to make money. He's promoting his rebellious ideals.

I would consider myself more of a radical progressive than he is. I'd

consider him a hard core liberal. I'm not mad at that. Not everyone can

be a radical, we have all these scumbag conservatives and why not have

a good hard core liberal who likes helping the community. I respect the

man a lot; he's a master craftsman and an articulate thinking


When they came

to me to do the show, we'd been friends for many years and the space is

very small for me. I've had shows with a quarter of the work in twice

the space, but because it's Shepard and he knows me so well and

understands what I do, why not do it? I hadn't shown in L.A. in a few

years and the show will be jam-packed with stuff I've never displayed

in L.A. Ninety-percent of the stuff has been published in my books but a

good portion has never been seen by anyone other than me. It will also

be the first time I'm exhibiting stuff from my last art book.

You've displayed an almost Weegee-like ability to be in the

right place at the right time? How much of that is luck, how much of

that is savvy and how much is just knowing the right people to surround

yourself with?

I think it's a lot of hard work. I was very involved

as young person in learning about cultures and what was going around

me. I was lucky to be born at that time but so were a lot of other

people and they were taking pictures--I worked that much harder, got the

stuff that lasted and stood above the rest. The images speak for

themselves. It was hard work, persistence and having an excitement

level that drove me to want to inspire others as I was being inspired.

Would you say there are any common aesthetic or ideological strands that cut all your photographs?

I think this has been really well articulated by Ian Svenonius in my book Recognize. But I'd

have to say I strive for a really simple, clean, but articulate and

specific aesthetic towards classical forms and art. I want a perfect

symmetry, to capture the character of the subject, and to expose

people to something that might not be familiar, but to make it

familiar. Politically, always been radical, or at the very least

exciting and intense. I like it when the work has a feeling of

aggression in it.

Do any favorite subjects to shoot stand out above the rest?

I have my favorites from the skateboarding

years. They were the people with the most style and radical

performances. When it came to the punk rock years, it was the people

who put themselves on the line more than the others. My personal

favorites can probably change from one day to the next, but in skating

someone like Jay Adams stands out. In punk rock, I'd say in the early

years, Black Flag and in the later years, Fugazi.

In hip hop, I enjoyed what I was doing but it wasn't quite as vital to

me, being that I was older, in my mid 20s to late 20s and it was much

more premeditated. But it was very interesting to me and very

provocative politically and aesthetically. I tried to take hip hop visuals back

to the streets. I asked rappers to stay in their own elements and I

captured them and idealized them that way.

But it was very interesting to me, both aesthetically and politically. Public Enemy always comes to mind because they were so overtly political at a time when so few others were.

What would you like people to remember you by?

For being an idealist and never giving in. I've tried to fight for what I

believe in and I've tried not to do things for myself, but for the

community. I've tried to make the world a better place. I didn't only become

vegan for my own health or the animals being slaughtered, I did it

because I know how it affects the environment. I'm a caring, loving,

but very aggressive, loud-mouthed person, that's how I'll be

remembered, whether I like it or not. I know it and I'm proud of it. On

top of that, I really know how to take a good fucking picture that tells a story.

Glen E. Friedman's Idealist Proaganda runs through January 9 2009 at Subliminal Projects, located at 1331 W. Sunset Blvd. in Echo Park.

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