If you’re even remotely familiar with auto racing from the 1960s, then you know the work of Dave Friedman. He has been actively photographing all genres of the sport since 1946, shortly after serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Dave was active during the rollicking early years of California sports car racing, an era of steamy competition that spawned stars such as Dan Gurney, Phil Hill and Dave MacDonald. He stayed at it professionally, built his portfolio, and in the early 1960s, was hired by Carroll Shelby to be the official in-house photographer at Shelby American.
Combining racing and the Sixties ought to have been compelling enough for anyone. Friedman, however, was different. He is a child of Hollywood. His father could trace his own history in the film industry back to 1924, when he was named as a senior production manager at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. This wasn’t long after the studios moved en masse to Southern California from their roots around New York City. Dave’s mother was an actress in silent films. But it took a change in the automotive world to turn Friedman’s orbit back toward Hollywood.
“Basically, I just picked it up,” Friedman recalls today. “I was probably in the fourth or fifth grade when I got my first camera, a Brownie Hawkeye. I still have it today. “When Shelby American was closing out (from its original headquarters in Venice, California) in late 1964 and was overrun with Mustangs, I could see the writing on the wall and didn’t want to have to drive out to the (Los Angeles) airport, where Shelby was moving. So I got a job at Columbia as an assistant cameraman, and started to split my time with Shelby. Later, I went to 20th Century Fox, and the time I spent at Fox was the best education I ever had. They were the masters.”
By 1969, Friedman had built up enough union seniority that he was able to switch from using motion picture to still cameras. Virtually all studios want to have a still photographer on site while their movies are being filmed, or as Friedman describes it, “you’re there to capture the making of the film, both in front of and behind the camera.”
His career allowed Friedman to become personally close to a generation’s worth of film luminaries. He’s worked with Steve McQueen, Bruce Lee, Sylvester Stallone, Robert Redford an Arnold Schwarzenegger. He describes the still photographer on the movie set as “a department of one.” Actors are used to performing in front of the camera, but to keep from distracting them in the middle of a scene, Friedman enclosed his Nikon cameras in Jacobsen Sound Blimps, a housing that allowed the camera’s shutter to be completely silenced when it was released, not disturbing the actors. Today, he is the only still photographer recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Friedman also has another passion, using his skills to capture the effortless grace of classical ballet. He is the author of more than 30 books, most on motorsports, many of which are out of print and highly valued by collectors. His archive of more than 100,000 racing images is now curated by The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan. And he’s still working with Hollywood, this time on a film project, entitled Silent Life, a story based on the life and death of the early silent screen sheik, Rudolph Valentino. As someone who’s been in such close proximity to celebrity, Friedman is sanguine. “It never affected me,” he said. “My father was good friends with many people in the movie industry; they came to our house. He told me they were the same as us, put their pants on one leg at a time, so that was how he treated them.”