From Dogtown to Black Flag, Public Enemy to the Beastie Boys, Friedman's images make up a veritable Hall of Fame of alternative culture. Starting with 1994's Fuck You Heroes, he's released a series of retrospective books spanning the various subjects and themes of his career. Other archival books include Dogtown & Z-Boys, a document of skateboarding legends and Keep Your Eyes Open, a chronicle of the band Fugazi. His two art books, The Idealist and Recognize, take the same aesthetic and energy used for skateboarding and punk but direct it at a wider variety of subjects.
Unlike many of the artists he's photographed, Friedman hasn't necessarily emerged from the underground. While skateboarding now sells soda and punk is available at any mall in America, Friedman remains defiantly independent. His books are published through his own Burning Flags label and he hasn't allowed many of his images to be used for commercial purposes. The Subliminal Projects show, which ran through January 9, was his first exhibition in almost five years.
"The show has a lot to do with Shepard's appreciation for what I do," says Friedman. "We don't agree on everything business-wise but I respect him and it was just cool to do a show with someone who really respects the work. That made it inspiring for me to really pull out some stuff that he would dig."
Friedman might seem like the luckiest guy in the world, a photographer that happened to be in the right place at the right cultural time. But as he rightly points out, he wasn't the only one taking pictures of these people and places. So why have his images endured? Whether shooting a Tony Alva frontside air out of a pool or Ian MacKaye lunging into a crowd with a mic, Friedman's perspective has always been immersed in his subject. He's in the pool. He's in the crowd. Not a fly on the wall, but a fly in your face.
"The pictures speak to more than the hardcore audience but are made from a hardcore perspective with an artists' eye," he says. "You can look at them and still feel them, even if you have no idea what it's about. It's about composition and emotion."
What was the process like for you, organizing and picking the pieces for Idealist Propaganda?
To me, all the shows are retrospectives because I'm not a typical artist who puts out new work for people to see for the first time. All my shows have been based on photography I've done over the years. This show really does take it to the first roll of film to my most recent work.
Recognize was the first book I've made that doesn't have any old material. All my books have something from my archive except for that one. That was just the result of starting a project and it ending up becoming a book. At first I just wanted to do a show for Recognize, but since I hadn't done anything in more than five years, we decided that it would be cool to give everyone a look at everything.
Has your perspective changed, in terms of what you chose for a book or exhibit 15 years ago and what you want to include now?
Absolutely. My perspective on what I would publish and what looks good has changed quite a bit over the years. When I made Fuck You Heroes, starting in'91 or '92, I had very specific ideas of what I wanted to have. I didn't think I'd have another book so I put a lot of stuff into it but certainly limited certain aspects. Every photo in that book is printed uncropped, to the film edge, and just showing good examples of my style, what I did well and what became important to alternative culture of the time. And some of those photos hadn't been submitted to magazines for whatever reason when they were originally shot, but then 10 or 30 years later I saw something in them of value.
Extending that idea even further was my book The Idealist, where I wasn't concerned with who was in them, just about choosing the most beautiful pictures. It's more just about my aesthetic. The goal was to try and inspire people to take good photographs again. I'm not just some guy who took these alternative subculture photos. If you have an eye, you have an eye. I just felt there was a lot of shit out there. In the early 90s, things like Ray Gun magazine which, to me, was a travesty. I mean, it made a good statement but after the first issue or two it was complete shit. Not to take much away from David Carson, but I think it was a gimmick that destroyed aesthetic in a way that wasn't punk, wasn't cool, it was just fucking lazy. And maybe people were looking for something to kick things in the ass, but why destroy other people's art just to make your own cool statement? Then it unfortunately started affecting the overall aesthetic, where more magazines thought it was cool to print an out of focus picture, a sentence could continue on the next page even if there was only a couple words left. They just didn't pay attention to the art of the written word or the photography. Don't tell me that was for art's sake but that was bullshit. Anyway, The Idealist was a reaction to that.
How did the Recognize project come about?
I've always been into the environment, I'm a vegan and all that but really, you've got to be a pretty big asshole not to be in complete awe of nature. It just came to me looking at the clouds when I was on a flight somewhere. I was just in awe of the visual stimulation and inspiration that I'll never see again. I'm going 600 mph, a cloud changes every millisecond. I just felt compelled to take photos.
It was real intense and it was something I had no control over, as usual. I decided to take the shots with no perspective or view of the ground, as if I am in the clouds, just like I took shots of punk rock shows from within the crowd or of skaters from within the bowl. Then I started thinking that there is nothing more universal than clouds. No matter where you are on the earth, you've seen a cloud. Not everyone's seen a tree or a mountain or an ocean, but everyone's looked up and seen a cloud.
You've said about Idealist Propaganda, "the work speaks for itself, for those tuned in or not." What do you mean by that?
I just meant that people are going to dig it if they know who Tony Alva is and if they know who Ian MacKaye is. But those who don't know should also be able to appreciate it because all those images have a certain power. The pictures speak to more than the hardcore audience but are made from a hardcore perspective with an artists' eye. You can look at them and still feel them, even if you have no idea what it's about. It's about composition and emotion.
Obviously your work has changed – from skaters in schoolyards to abstract clouds – but how has your approach and process changed?
I don't think it's changed that much. I just think it's got more particular. I happened to be around at a very particular time and there were some things going on that weren't being seen by a lot of people. It was a very inspiring time for me. It just seems that those things that inspired me are continuing to inspire people 20 and 30 years later. Ultimately it's the subjects that inspired me. Even if they weren't as great as I portrayed them, they inspired me enough to portray them in that way. I idealized their image. I just saw that glimmer in them and wanted to extend that out for people to see.
What inspires you?
I just don't like the dumbing down of the country and the planet. The last eight years have been devo. And anything that contributes to that – like thinking bad art should be in museums or Damien Hirst getting paid as much as he does for what he does – that's devo, man. The only Devo I like is the band. Anything that fights that, I'm into.