My Rules: An Interview with Glen E. Friedman
Photo by Alice Gibson
Words by Robert Boswell
It takes a remarkably assiduous person to capture the nature and nuances of a scene on film. Glen E. Friedman is that person, and has done that irreproachably with his latest book My Rules, which documents the golden eras of skateboarding, punk and Hip Hop. Last month, to coincide with the launch of his book and London exhibition, we sat down with the man himself to look back on his storied career behind the lens.
Where did the idea for My Rules come from? Who is the book for?
The book is to inspire people, that’s what the book is for. My work has always been about inspiration. It was to expose people to things they might not have normally seen, and to expose people to things I was experiencing myself that were inspiring to me and that I knew were fucking incredible. I knew something was going on here that no one else knows about except for the few people that are in this room and the schoolyard, and I gotta fucking share it with people because this shit is incredible. This book starts forty years ago until the last photo was taken in I think last April or May. I had to take a page out of the book to add this last page in because I got to meet someone who is very inspiring and wanted them to be in the book. Most of the photos of course are taken in the 70s and 80s. That’s the crux of my best or most inspiring work for most people. There were very inspiring things going on at the time for me and that’s why I created the work that I did, and it just so happens that the era encompassed the golden era of skateboarding, the golden era of American hardcore and the golden era of hip-hop.
What is your relationship today with the contributors in the book?
I have relationships with 95% of the people that are in the book, they’re mostly my friends and I know most of them very well, some of them not as well. I’d say there is one person in the book I don’t know personally that wrote something. The one person I don’t know so well is someone I’ve held in such high esteem and I just thought I gotta try and get this guy to write something, because he’s my favourite MC of all time, and he’s such a genius, and it was Rakim. I knew Eric B, I never knew Rakim. I maybe met him once or twice when taking pictures but I never knew him personally. Of course he ends it just so poetically, it’s just phenomenal. “A pioneer’s spirit and a traveller’s anticipation.” I just looked up the quote because I was like ‘He couldn’t have written that, he couldn’t have been the man to say that first,’ and yet it nowhere to be found on the internet. It just sounded like a cliché, like when you find someone who is such a good writer that everything sounds like a cliché.
What makes the photographs in ‘My Rules’ so special?
There’s other pictures of all these people. Mine stand the test of time for a reason, ya know? When you take your time, and have a passion about the subject, that shows up in the work. That’s what people relate to. There’s thousands of pictures of some of the people I’ve shot, and only a dozen of others. But generally mine speak to people for a reason. And if they don’t speak to you, then you obviously don’t have a sense or interest in something that’s special. It’s a lot more than capturing the moment, it’s a sense of character, an attitude, and composition that comes across. And a lot of other photos were taken at the same time so you can’t fucking say a moment. It’s not about the moment. The moment is there, but it’s the way it’s put together and portrayed. That’s what makes it fucking special. I never claim to be the first in anything, not usually anyways, but maybe the first to do it properly in someway.
How aware were you of other photographers taking pictures of bands at the same time?
You’re aware of other photographers, and I was aware that I know what I’m doing and they have no idea what they’re doing. Everyone has their own perspective. That’s why I started doing this because I have my perspective and I think the work will speak for itself. I wasn’t ever trying to outdo anyone else, I was trying to do justice to the subjects. And most other photographer’s work doesn’t do justice to the subjects, that’s why I started doing it. That’s a really important point. I mean, especially in hip hop, there was no good photography at all. There are some pictures now that you can look back, you know thirty, forty, twenty years later and the pictures have a different meaning right? I mean they look cool now just because just about anything looks cool now, you know? But if something’s stood the test of time and was great back then, and is great now and becomes iconic and not just because of the moment, there’s something to be said for that I think.
Are you comfortable with your photos being described as iconic?
Am I comfortable with it? Yeah sure. It’s great, it’s totally great. I’m honoured by it. It’s not about me. I’m honoured by it but I worked really fucking hard to make it happen so am I surprised by it? Yeah I am, I’m even surprised by it but it’s awesome. They are awesome, fucking awesome photos. I fucking worked hard, I cared, I put a lot into making them and if they can get recognised for that then I’m a very lucky artist. Most people don’t get to be recognised, and a lot of my stuff isn’t. I can’t tell you how many pictures that are in these books that people think are iconic were turned down by photo editors when they were originally made. And that’s how it goes. But I believed in what I was doing and luckily I saved most of them. Not all of them, many have been lost over the years but these are the ones that survived and it is a majority of them, but it isn’t all of them. Look at the new book, it’s fucking awesome. If you spend just a minute on each page it’d take you six hours to get through it.
Was there ever any resistance from anyone to being photographed?
There was a time when hip hop was getting a lot more organized and people were just getting way too professional. There was money and people were thinking way to ahead of themselves. I really wanted to shoot Wu Tang Clan before their first album even came out. I had heard the Method Man single and wanted to shoot Meth. I tried setting up a session with him and that’s not how I normally work, usually I meet people and say let’s shoot photos one day. That’s how I met Chuck D a bunch of times. We’d just go to shows and hang out. They saw the original ‘My Rules’, him and Hank Shocklee, and new my stuff. You know we were just looking at pictures of friends. Passionate people that share their passions can become friends very easily, and that’s how I have met most of the people I do. They realise when they meet me that I’m not fucking around. I’m very involved in the scenes that I work with, it’s my lifestyle as much as it is theirs, if not more. I might know more about it than they do and they think they know everything, but I’m very intense about it. The thing with Method Man, that’s like by 1991 or maybe later and I had to call a manager or something because Wu had one of their cousins or someone’s brother in-law or someone and I was like, this does not feel right. I don’t wanna fucking call someone, else let me call the person! No, this is how they want you to do it, even Russell was like “This is how you deal with these guys”. So I set up a thing, he was supposed to come, and he didn’t come twice. I realised probably in that moment that I’m not shooting much more hip hop. It was going in a different place it was just getting kinda weird. It was disappointing because I wanted him to be in my ‘Fuck You Too’ book really badly and thought I would have shot a great portrait of him at the time. There’s a few people like that but that was an interesting turning point for me I was like it’s going in a place now where it’s out of control.
Once again, with the Wu, you were at the right place at the beginning of something that would end up being so big…
And I would have liked to (shoot them) but they lost the opportunity, how funny is that? I have Ice Cube in the book right when he’s just quit NWA and I think he’s made much better records than they ever did. I mean you can’t beat ‘Fuck Tha Police’ but if you really listen to the rest of the albums, it’s pretty mediocre shit. There are some other goods songs but NWA was mostly about the name and the attitude and they weren’t great records. But Ice Cube’s albums were amazing. I didn’t think of the Wu Tang situation as you just stated it, but it is true. If you look on the original My Rules, there’s only one skater on this back cover. Do you know who that is? It’s not a Dog Towner, its Tony Hawk, in 1982. I had a feeling he was the next, he was it, you know?
Early on where there any problems moving between the hardcore and hip hop scenes?
No… and you know, being a white person at a hip hop show, there was reverse racism in a positive way. From my experience, most people would actually give you more respect because you were there and you were interested in the culture. Most people, anyway. Some people were the opposite and they’d have a negativity towards you, but most of the time when I was in a predominantly black scene, sometimes the only white person in the room, I was never uncomfortable. I was usually with the right people its not like I would go by myself anywhere normally, you know, though sometimes I did.
One of the first hip hop groups I shot I did go by myself and it was in LA and it was very peculiar because I was a white person in that particular day – and in that particular scene – I was given all this responsibility by someone who didn’t even know me. It was very very weird, crazy. They gave me the keys to their car to go and pick up the band, I’d never even met the guy before. He didn’t even know me but he knew I wanted to take pictures of UTFO when the single ‘Roxanne Roxanne’ came out. It was the first hip hop act besides the Beastie Boys that I’d ever shot. Although the Beasties really were not a hip hop act they were just friends you know, and a former punk band. So I got to the venue to shoot the band and the promoter said they aren’t here they’re at the hotel, you can take my car and go and get them. I was like twenty-five or something and he just gives me the keys to his car. He didn’t even know my name, practically. So I went to the hotel and got the band. I took their pictures at the hotel and at the venue. Someone got killed back at the venue that night it was pretty crazy. It was a big place, Kurtis Blow and UTFO were playing, it was the Olympic Auditorium and I only saw one other white person there out of how ever many thousand people there. There might have been more but I only saw one and he was someone I kind of knew, a writer for the LA weekly. Ice T was there too, I didn’t know him yet, but he told me that this guy had gotten killed. There was this gang fight in there and they beat this guy up with two-by-fours it was crazy.
Did photography ever feel like work?
The only time it seemed like work was when I was getting paid, which wasn’t that often. Like when I was getting paid in advance, when I knew we were out to get something that had to be done that day. As opposed to just shooting photos for a good time, and just doing we’d do something with it later. When I was under contract and doing something very specific it felt like work, but I still enjoyed it. There was more pressure and I would shoot more film. I shoot very little film anyways, like there are album covers, many album covers in fact that I’d do on one roll. I had used a 6 x 7 camera a couple times which is a bigger format, there’s like only sixteen exposures, or twelve exposures I think on one of those rolls. I had done LL Cool J’s ‘BAD’ album cover on one roll. I’d done Juice Jones’ album cover on one roll, and I’d done Davey D’s album cover on one roll. Maybe there were two rolls for the LL ‘BAD’ album cover, but I don’t think so actually. Some of those photos when I think of it now were time exposures, it was all experimentation. With LL in fact on the BAD album cover, the other photo that I took that was good. He was in better focus but it wasn’t composed as well. If you look at the picture, everything’s sharp except for this upper body and it’s not so much that he’s out of focus, it’s more that he moved. He had to sit still for like five seconds. You know the shot with him standing on the car, with the fence and the big green high school behind him? It was pretty cool, we had a good time. It feels like work but it doesn’t feel like work.
When I shot the Beastie’s ‘Check Your Head’ cover, we had hung out the night before. I hadn’t seen them in a couple of years, they had moved to LA, and they played me songs from the album. We’re playing basketball and checking out their skateboard ramp and the studio, stuff like that, just having a good time. I’m like “this album is incredible, this is the best. We should shoot photos tomorrow.” “But we already have our album cover Glen”. Its ok don’t worry about it lets just shoot photos. I was just out in California for Thanksgiving to see my mom, and I was getting on the plane that night. We’d just met the night before and I was leaving to go back to New York, and I was just so inspired I was like we gotta take pictures let’s do this. I said let’s start as early as you can and here’s what I want you to bring. I want you to being your guitar cases, they can be empty. I want it to look like you’re walking to practise like I used to see kids in the city walking to band practise. I want this picture of you walking with your cases. That was my vision that I had of them. And Mike since he didn’t play an instrument, I said bring a paper bag to hold a microphone and some drumsticks in, and that’s what he did. We met by Capitol Records, and shot that picture of them and Yauch had one idea before the day he says I really want a picture like the ‘Salad Days’ photo, the Minor Threat photo of the band and I said OK. We thought we were going to do that at his cabin because he has a log cabin and there’s one of those photos in the ‘Fuck You Too’ book. But I knew when I sat them on the curb, that’s the shot. In the new book you have three images, I only shot three frames of them sitting on the curb but I knew when I got it. So with the Beasties we just shot all day. They met me at like ten in the morning, they knew I had to go and they knew that I did good work so you know. We’d always laugh, they’d make me cry we would laugh so much together, you know. They were just hilarious dudes. We hadn’t spent much time together in a long time so we shot all these photos from morning until night, until the sun went down. The last photos of them standing on the beach. We had a great fucking session, we shot several rolls maybe two or three rolls, maybe four. It was work because I wanted to do great stuff but it’s what I love doing. I was inspired by the music and their creativity so I just had to do really great work. And I really wanted to get that album cover, I wanted to be part of that album, but they’d already had the album cover done supposedly. So I got to New York and you know you have to wait a couple days to process your film, you gotta hope that when you go through the x-rays it doesn’t get fucked up. And I get there and I get the stuff developed and I send it through a fax machine. I faxed them the photos. And if you look at the first Check Your Head vinyl album, the fax is on the cover. They loved the way the fax looked so much the old album cover just got axed. They changed the cover at the last moment, I was like hell yeah. It’s an album I wanted to be a part of.
You know I did the first two Public Enemy album covers? I had to be a part of those albums. I love those albums. I love that group, the demos were great. I knew I was going to be a part of it. For the second album cover, I had ideas. Chuck told me the title and I had an idea. Sometimes bands have the ideas and sometimes it’s me. Like, I’ve named albums for people. I hear their music and I know what’s going on and it’s gonna have the greatest impact. But with that album I knew. I mean it was the greatest album ever made at that time. And years later it’d be the greatest hip hop album of all time ever, period. You know no one’s ever gonna top that. They might make great albums but they won’t top that for its importance. The photo they picked for the cover of ‘It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back’, I threatened to scratch the negative because I was really mad. I was like this is not the best photo at all. This is really bad, it’s not good, the composition is not right. “But yeah, Glen its dope.” Because you have to remember that 80% of the sales at that time were on cassette, and on the cassette it only had a 2 x 2 square and the title below it. People weren’t using the whole cassette box yet. I was just so mad and they said if you scratch that, we won’t have a cover. We sat in a little office with Def Jam upstairs and I said this shot is so much better, but they said “Yeah but you don’t see so many bars on the cassette, and you need to see the jailhouse”. I had so many ideas for this album and originally I wanted it to be the image of them off the TV monitor, the surveillance monitor. I wanted it to look like Chuck was punching out the camera. So I shot it and they thought it was too abstract for their audience to have the surveillance camera. I said the story will be on the back cover, and we still have the story on the back cover of them escaping from the jail right, but even that was to abstract for them. So they wanted one of the ones of them just in a cell. The best one was the one in my book ‘The Idealist’, what I thought was the best photo from the session. For twenty years I thought that was the best photo from the session and that was the one I wanted to use on the album cover. The one they used was the wrong one, the light was leaning the wrong way, the composition wasn’t right I mean you can’t even see Chuck’s eyes. But it worked, people made it work, but it wasn’t what I was trying to do. That’s why I hated that photo but it’s a great album and I lived with it.
Why were you there – at these pivotal moments with these bands and scenes?
It’s because it’s what inspired me. I was there because I was inspired by these people. I was just a kid growing up at the time and this is what I loved, you know? I loved skateboarding. When I was turned onto punk music I just loved it. It was just my life you know? It was keeping me alive, it was vital to me, and because it was so vital to me I thought it might be to other people too and I wanted to share it with people. I believe in sharing, I want to spread the inspiration and that’s really what it was all about. I made myself be there, I became interested in things so I just got involved. When I heard the song ‘Jam Master J’ I was like “Oh I’m gonna be involved in this. I don’t know how the fuck I’m gonna meet these guys but I wanna fucking work with these guys”. Next thing you know, the Beastie Boys had the same fucking manager. I thought “Oh shit I’m actually going to meet these guys, this is actually gonna happen. And I’m actually gonna help them because they got a shitty ass album cover”. You look back at the first album cover now and it looks good because it’s so raw, and so retro. It’s an instamatic camera and looks so bad. Back then when it was only a year away it was just a shitty fucking photo you know, and you need to take decent stuff. Later on, people try and make stuff look dirty. Like Rick Rubin wanted me to shoot the Public Enemy cover with an instamatic and I said “I’m not doing it man”. The farthest I went was I went and bought the film at the supermarket before we shot the photos. I figured it might be damaged or the colour’s off or really grainy because it’s a forgiving film. It’s one of my favourite album covers the first one, ‘Yo Bum Rush The Show’. It’s amazing, it’s a great shot. It looks biblical or some shit.
View more of Glen’s work here.