The 19th century French novelist Emile Zola said, "In my view you cannot claim to have seen something until you have photographed it."
In the mid-80s when grunge was percolating in the Pacific Northwest, a recent graduate of the University of Washington was "killing time" by documenting Seattle's local music scene with his camera. For Charles Peterson, his role as chronicler of the grunge movement has been as important as the music itself. By recording and preserving such an influential period in music history, Peterson has given us the opportunity to "see something" and perhaps wax nostalgic over a bygone era.
In the third installment of our "Great Rock Photographer" series, Charles Peterson chats about Kurt Cobain, being pigeonholed as a rock photographer, why he no longer wants to photograph "grimy dudes," Usher's professionalism, his fascination with B-Boy culture, and his recurring dream of Eddie Vedder.
How did you start taking pictures of the grunge scene?
I was just kind of there from the beginning. Mark Arm from Mudhoney was my college roommate in 1983. At that time Green River started up. I was just hanging out with Kim Thayil pre-Soundgarden. We all went to college together. I was introduced to Bruce Pavitt. We were all just kind of buddies. It was a very sort of organic process that happened with us. It wasn’t like I parachuted into the scene to try and take advantage of it or something. It just happened to be that it was what we were all doing to kill time. I couldn’t play an instrument to save my life, and I was pretty good with a camera so that became my role in it.
Is it more challenging to take pictures of friends than people you don’t know?
I think so, to a degree. I think back then it was possibly a little to my detriment because it was too easy to just hang out. You know? And you sort of take it for granted. Especially when you’re so young. It’s like you don’t realize the importance of what you’re doing. It’s just something you’re doing. Knowing what I know now, the way I’ve matured as a photographer...yes I do wish I can turn the clock back sometimes and sort of redo some things (laughs).
I read somewhere that when you were labeled a rock photographer you felt pigeonholed. Was it hard to break free from that label?
Yeah, it was. There were some people who believed in me like Meg Handler at the Village Voice. She assigned me to shoot writers and artists and all this non-music stuff which was really great and refreshing. Within the music publishing industry was where I had the worst time as far as being pigeonholed. I’ll tell you a story.
Spin Magazine approached me about doing a photo of John Ponemon and Bruce Pavitt of Sub Pop. I think it was the tenth anniversary of the label or something. I met with the photo editor at Spin and she was looking at my portfolio, and I had a few shots in there of your basic portraits against white backdrops. She said something like, “We’re not doing these white backdrop things anymore.” Okay. Whatever. I’ve got a lot of other stuff in there.
I wanted to go pose them in the woods – John with a laptop and Bruce with a chainsaw. I didn’t hear back from them. Then it turns out they flew in a photographer from San Francisco and what do they do? They pose John and Bruce against a white background (laughter). So it’s kind of like “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
I also heard somebody would mention me for a job and they’re like, “If we wanted a blurry black and white photo of the band jumping into the drum kit then we’d hire him.” So I got really pigeonholed like I can just shoot this one sort of thing. Which is not true at all.
Do you prefer to shoot musicians?
Well, actually I really dislike shooting music now. Though it really depends. I enjoy shooting music that is sort of outside of what people consider to think what I’d like to shoot. Shooting somebody like Usher is really great.
Weirdly enough one of my favorite photo shoots on [my website] is Usher. This was a number of years ago; I got the job from Vibe to photograph him. I had never heard of him before. Even up until the moment I was in the same room as him, I had no idea who this guy was (laughter). That’s not a rarity with me.
Last week I was photographing Cobra Starship who was playing at Bing. And they were great. I had never heard of them and they started playing and I was like, “Oh, I recognize that song.” But anyway Usher…the job for Vibe was photographing the show and seeing whatever I can get backstage, documentary style, which is what I do best. And he was such a consummate professional. He let me just hang out for like two and a half hours before the show. At one point it was just me and him backstage together. He’s trying on different clothes and stuff, so I was a fly on the wall and the show was not my cup of tea, but I was allowed such access that I got some really, really great shots. Probably some of the better stuff I’ve ever done in my career. It’s all about access. It’s all about what the artists will give you.
On my site there’s a picture of Erykah Badu. (Another musician I had never heard of before she went on stage.) Musically, it’s not really my cup of tea per se, but it’s just like the elegance and the stage show...it gives you a lot more to work with than just four grimy dudes who’ve been living in a van for six months, making fart jokes. I kind of need more than that right now.
I live in the heart of Hipsterville, so I know what you mean.
You know what I mean. I call it Beard Rock.
Beard Rock (laughter). Do your subjects come in with ideas? Has anybody ever come in with an idea that you went with?
Sometimes. I usually discourage that. Record labels are always like, “I’ll send you a copy of the pre-release of the cd and all this press material and stuff.” I’m not a real conceptual photographer. I’m not like Annie Leibovitz or something, so I just kind of take them as they are. I’d much rather just put ‘em anywhere and work with the frame and just keep it natural, loose.
I’m really struck by the diversity of your photographs. I love the James Murphy…the LCD Soundsystem shots. They just pop. I was wondering if you have a favorite.
It’s funny. I really like those shots of James Murphy, and I got to meet him in person about a week and a half ago down at the Bing Bar at Sundance Film festival. I spent a week documenting the whole thing. It’s the second year in a row that I’ve been documenting it. He’s got a new documentary coming out so he dj’d his own private party. It’s a really great way to avoid talking to guests. Spinning records. It was fun to photograph him again. It was really just portraits and him at the turntable. People consider me just for my grunge work.
Who were some of your favorites to shoot at Sundance?
Ice-T was pretty cool. And Spike Lee. Rebecca Hall’s still a major crush. And let’s see, last year there was—I’m trying to think who else I got…Oh, last year there was the whole set of this movie Margin Call, which was like, Jeremy Irons, Kevin Spacey, and Simon Baker, and all these dudes---I’ll send you a link so that you can see some of that stuff.
Yeah, that would be cool. Will any of these photos make their way into a book? Do you have plans for a new book?
I do have plans for another book; it’s been in the works. Oh yeah, Florence & The Machine. Yet another band I’d never heard of before, but I kinda looked them up. I was like, "oh who knows, this could be really, really stupid," and it was actually really amazing…and really great to photograph. But yeah, I’d like to—oh! Harry Belafonte. He was fun to photograph too. Yeah, the working title is Negative Creeps.
"Creeps," yeah, as in the Nirvana song but plural. My first intention was to do a portrait book, but I’ve got all this great grunge stuff in the can that’s never been seen, and ostensibly it’s a book of faces. It’s like kinda taking the portrait idea and just sort of pushing the envelope with it.
And then being a little more cross-genre, like throwing in some pictures of Johnny Cash or Kris Kristofferson or whoever kind of falls under that moniker of the outsider or the negative creep.
I don’t know if Usher falls under that moniker.
Usher? Yeah, yeah, I don’t think so. Yeah (laughs). Put a live picture of Usher next to a live picture of the Butthole Surfers or something.
How did the book Cypher come about?
I’ve always been fascinated with B-Boy culture and hip-hop. I bought the Grandmaster Flash 12 inches practically when they first came out, back in like ’82 and ’83. So, that kinda scene has always been on my radar.
After a show, when we end up at my place, it’s like, “Alright, fuck you people, we’re listening to Public Enemy.” In 2001, I’d been meaning to go out to this B-Boy night club forever, and finally I grabbed my Menina 6 - it’s a camera that you would use for portraiture, or studio, or landscape or something. I just thought, “push the envelope here,” and shot a bunch of rolls of film and got ‘em back, and it was like some of the best stuff I’d shot in years.
The whole scene was super refreshing. It was just people doing their thing, and there’s no industry, no bullshit attitudes, and you pay your five bucks cover and get in and just shoot all you want. The energy was fantastic. Just reminded me of the old days, in a way, of the rock scene. I just started going out to clubs and shooting locally, and then ended up going to some big events in New York and L.A. and talked to my publisher, Powerhouse, showed them some work and they got really interested and spent a year or more, editing and kind of pulling it all together. And yeah, did a book. Sales-wise, did nothing (laughs), did pretty poorly. But I was proud of the work and I mean it’s really, really strong. Doing a photo book without somebody famous in it, is just a really tough sell.
What makes for a successful shoot?
For me it’s capturing those off-moments. It’s the unposed sort of candid moments. It’s pretty easy to just go out there with a long lens and take the close-up money shot of the singer the other eight photographers that are with you are doing as well. Trying to get the shit that uses the space and captures a moment that’s kind of unique speaks not only to the music but to photography as well. I prefer my images to be more iconic in a sense. And so to be able to capture that one sort of iconic photograph is important. And it’s impossible to do that in the first three songs. I actually won’t even shoot a show these days unless I’m allowed full access to it.
How would you describe your style?
I guess the best description is reportage. It’s a French term for it, but fine art documentary is (I think) how that translates. That’s definitely the type of photographers that have inspired me through the years, that whole Magnum School of Photography.
Well, I mean it’s obviously of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. In particular, there’s the one photograph of him where he’s got his legs up in the air. You don’t see his face really; he’s still playing the guitar. It’s kind of at a diagonal in the frame. He’s doing a somersault essentially, but it just sort of looks like he’s floating above the stage upside-down.
Just like Mick Rock said, that’s one of those shots that just happened in the blink of an eye. Especially back then when you were shooting film you didn’t know whether you got it or not, or anything, until a day or two later. So, you just kinda took it and maybe filed it to the back of your mind that this is something that happened but just kept on shooting.
The other obviously iconic image is of him [Kurt] sprawled on the drum kit at Raji’s. That’s the middle part of a whole Motor Sports Series of him launching himself, falling into it, and then getting back up off the drum kit and walking out of the frame.
A couple years back, the Seattle Art Museum did a show called Kurt, which is artwork inspired by Kurt Cobain or about, and they commissioned me to blow up that whole Drum Kit Series to like 44 x 66 inch prints, each one, and then they framed it, put it on a wall.
A lot of people thought it was the best part of the show, and it looked really, really great, so I donated it to the museum.
Did I see that photograph in the Who Shot Rock and Roll exhibit?
I don’t know if it was in that one. The one of him upside-down (I think) was in the table of contents and then they ran the MFest crowd shot in the book, and that was actually used as a poster for that show at the Brooklyn Museum. Did you see the book Taking Aim from the EMP?
I don’t think I have.
Yeah, that was a show that was at the Experience Music Project Museum. It was curated by Graham Nash and he included the photo of Kurt Cobain sprawled on the drum kit. And that was a really fun experience ‘cause I got to meet all these famous old-school photographers - Henry Diltz and Joel Bernstein and Jim Marshall. It was like a month before he passed away, so I got to meet him and talk a little bit. So yeah, that was a really, really great experience.