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“Fuck You All”
At the Govinda Gallery to June 24
Suppose you heard about a photographer so iconoclastic that he called his first two books Fuck You Heroes and Fuck You Too. And then you discovered that he had an exhibition titled “Fuck You All.” And suppose you went to his Georgetown exhibition to see just how fuck-you this photographer’s work really is—only to find two rooms of record-company promo photos.
Of course, most people who are likely to attend Glen E. Friedman’s show have already seen some of his photos. They’ll recognize shots from the covers of Minor Threat’s Salad Days, Public Enemy’s Rebel Without a Pause, and the Circle Jerks’ Golden Shower of Hits, to mention only three of his more widely distributed images. But only true Friedman devotees will already know that the fuck-you photographer has been working for the Man since he was 13. That’s when he started shooting for SkateBoarder magazine, beginning a career that has emphasized images of defiant young males in motion.
There’s nothing wrong with being a commercial artist, of course. Very few people who paint, write, compose, or make photographs do so entirely on their own terms. Most artists couldn’t be Fugazi—one of Friedman’s favorite subjects—even if they had the intensity, determination, and sheer cussedness to attempt it. And there’s a huge expanse of moral ground between shooting “Got Milk?” ads and making images that you show only to your cat and then burn.
In 1994, the New York Press ran a profile of Friedman that was later adapted as the afterword to Fuck You Too. You can read it on the wall at Govinda; one of the exhibition’s two rooms features the proofs of all the pages from that book. The article includes hiphop entrepreneur Russell Simmons’ account of what happened when he asked Friedman to shoot a picture of him for a Coca-Cola ad. Friedman’s response, says Simmons: “Coke? Fuck that.”
That’s the great thing about being a freelancer: You can turn down assignments that don’t appeal to you. Still, working freelance is not quite the same thing as being a revolutionary.
If Friedman really were a revolutionary, he probably wouldn’t be so flexible. He has a fondness for fisheye-lens candids with an explosion of adolescent masculinity at the center—it could be Ian MacKaye or Darby Crash or skateboarder Shugo Kubo—but he also does posed shots. He shoots on the fly in black and white, but also in hues so saturated they look like Technicolor. And although most of his black-and-white photos are full-frame, Friedman (unlike most high-art shooters) is willing to crop. (Indeed, one shot of the Make*Up appears cropped in Fuck You Too and in a poster-size full-frame blowup on the adjacent wall.) Friedman does what is required—which is the mark of a professional, not a radical.
A lot of these images are powerful, but they’re anything but iconoclastic. The notes to The Idealist, Friedman’s third book, suggest that Friedman’s work “humanizes” its subjects. Hardly. Indeed, despite the recurring use of “fuck you” in Friedman’s work, the operative word really is “heroes.” The photos in this show exalt charismatic male-adolescent surliness, which is not such a new idea. Friedman’s work documents the skate, hardcore-punk, and rap scenes from somewhere near their late-’70s beginnings on, but the attitude in his shots comes from James Dean, Marlon Brando, Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones—any of the icons of postwar male-adolescent cool who broke the promo-photo mold by posing as rebels without a smile.
There are a few smiles in Fuck You Too, but the broadest appear on the faces of three Playboy bunnies lying on their sides as a skater hurtles above their ears. The bunnies bug me, in part because skateboarding at the Playboy Hotel in New Jersey is not exactly fuck-you-heroic, but mostly because they constitute the largest bloc of women in this show. Elsewhere, the photos offer only the occasional female bassist or lead singer; a shot that depicts two of the Go-Gos and the hand of a third is the least boy-crazy of the nonbunny shots.
Although early-’80s hardcore was disturbingly male-centered, the larger punk scene that spawned it wasn’t. When Friedman shot bands outside the L.A.-D.C. hardcore axis, however, he chose the Ramones, the Buzzcocks, and even AC/DC and Slayer, not the Slits, the Raincoats, the Erasers, or even Talking Heads or Blondie. With these testosterone-fueled beginnings, it’s no great surprise that Friedman ended up photographing an album cover for the South Central Cartel in which five of the six members flaunt handguns, three of them pointed at the camera.
That’s an assignment Friedman could have turned down, especially considering that it came in 1993, after he’d been shooting professionally for almost two decades. Compared with this glamorization of guns, working for Coke doesn’t sound so bad.
Some hardcore kids grew up to have second thoughts about violence and sexism, and Friedman probably did, too. Ironically, “Fuck You All” is tied to the publication of The Idealist, a book that doesn’t emphasize photos of musicians (although it does contain some). Shot in Japan, Hong Kong, and Paris, as well as the United States, these diverse “artistic statements” are vivid, artful, and imaginative, if not startlingly original. Though static, the images nearly rival the verve of the frozen moments of bedlam in Friedman’s best-known work.
Govinda specializes in rock-related art, and the gallery is sure to attract a bigger crowd and sell a larger number of prints—at $1,000 to $3,500 each—by emphasizing Friedman’s photos of HR, Ice-T, and Guy Picciotto. Still, the fuck-you thing to do would have been to leave these photos in the archives and put the images from The Idealist up on the wall. CP