We welcome back prolific photographer Charles Peterson as he looks back at this unreleased photo of Kurt Cobain, who passed away 25 years ago today. Taken on New Year’s Day of 1993, this photo captures Cobain at The Inn At The Market hotel in Seattle, Washington. The band had just released a collection of outtakes and b-sides with Incesticide and was getting ready to record their 3rd and final album In Utero. Reimagined in beautiful hand-pulled screen prints, this shot was originally taken as part of a photo session for the cover of the national LGBT-magazine The Advocate. Be sure to snag one of these early as the Silver, Gold and Rainbow variants as all are available in extremely limited editions of 27. Read on to find out more about our latest hand-pulled screen prints with photographer Charles Peterson. . .
1xRUN: Let’s start with talking about this session, where were these photos first used? What was the original photo shoot for?
Charles Peterson: The shoot was New Year’s Day 1993, and it didn’t happen until about 11 o’clock in the evening. It was for The Advocate, the LGBT monthly magazine. It was for the glossy cover and an inside piece. He’d done this, at the time, controversial interview saying that, yeah, he thought, “Oh, I could be gay, too.” [Getting beaten up is a recurring theme in Cobain’s life. In his hometown of Aberdeen in rural Washington, he was branded a “faggot” from an early age. It was a title he eventually embraced and threw back in his tormentors’ faces-just for the hell of it. In 1985 he was even arrested when he and friend Chris Novoselic spray painted HOMO SEX RULES on the side of a bank. – Kevin Allman (from The Advocate 2/93 – full interview)
So he and Courtney [Love] were staying at the hotel, and [their daughter] Frances was quite young, six months maybe, at the time. They were staying in the Pike Place Market, at The Inn At The Market. They couldn’t find a house to rent at the time, or I don’t know, they couldn’t get it together to buy something. I went there and we photographed him in the bedroom of the hotel. I set up tension poles with some backdrop paper that I set up, and we did a few different things with color against that. I was trying to do the dumb thing with filtered gels and make a backdrop purple originally, and I actually think a lot of these photos work better now just converted to black and white.
Anyway, then we switched and went over to the bedroom, and he got his acoustic guitar out. He had this Ren & Stimpy doll that he played with. So then I just got out my Nikon 35 millimeter 1.4, and we just talked and I shot a roll of that and got these close-ups, grainy close-ups of him smoking.
1x: Was it just the two of you? Or was the writer for the Advocate there as well?
Peterson: No, it was just me and him. The writer wasn’t there, as they’d already done the interview earlier.
1x: Then, you guys are talking. What are you guys talking about? Just shooting the shit?
Peterson: Just about the music scene, and he was talking about his friendship with The Vaselines, and how he would love to buy a house in Scotland someday, out in the wilds of Scotland. Kurt and I were a little bit shy with each other, a little bit awkward. I think that’s sort of because he was this incredible performer, who also was an introvert. And I’m the same. I’m a person who’s made a name for myself photographing people, yet I’m a freaking introvert.
Chris Cornell was a little bit like that, too. It was sorta like magnets attract, but they bounce away from each other a little bit, a little awkward around each other. But at the same time, he was so comfortable letting you do what you needed to do, and he loved photography. He’s really magnanimous with photographers and had a lot of friendships with different photographers.
I didn’t really even think about it at the time, because I was just so somewhat clueless to the whole thing, but there was a good 10-15 minute stretch where he disappeared into the bathroom. Then there was a little bit where we got onto a roll with him and I talking, but there ended up being a few images of him pretty much nodding off.
Courtney was downstairs with Frances and yelling things up the whole time. Commenting on his black hair. It’s the only photo shoot, I think, that anyone ever did where he had dyed his hair black. So, in some sense, I like them, I think they’re striking, but in another sense they’re somewhat worthless, because people just identify with the blonde locks. The grunge thing. But, yea, it was definitely the most intimate photo shoot that we did together. When it’s with a band it’s a different energy.
1x: How many shots do you think you did total?
Peterson: I did six or seven rolls of 120, which is 12 shots per roll. So, maybe 100, 120 shots of 120. Some of that’s just throwaway, just kinda the warm up. At the end of the day, when you look back, it’s really these shots of him where he’s just more relaxed, without the lighting set ups. Particularity with the guitar in his hand, you could just see he just sorta instantly relaxed.
So, I’d say two or three rolls of black and white, 120, and then just the one roll of 35. I was always a relatively modest shooter back then in terms of just the amount of stuff that I shot. Looking back, I should’ve just always photographed everything. And I didn’t, I mean sometimes I had too much … but I’d call it an assignment tunnel. You’re on assignment; you gotta get this shot. You don’t think about the fact that 30 years down the road it might be a good shot to have. It’s like this thing at the time that just would be totally useless and would actually be the most important or interesting thing.
But … like I said, I was working through issues with shyness myself. And, actually, chronic pain. I remember this day, I went out New Year’s Night and had a little bit too much to drink, I’m sure. But all that day, with the stress of leading up to an assignment, this bigger assignment cover shoot, I also just had one of my nasty headaches. Sometimes wanna get it over with, when you’re in that state. And I wasn’t going into the bathroom and shooting up, either. I just had an Advil, an Excedrin at my disposal.
1x: Did you go into it saying, “These are the kinda shots I wanna get.” Or did you just kinda play it by ear?
Peterson: Well, I knew that I had to get a shot for the cover, I shot that medium format square, and I knew it had to be sharp and just him, with enough room for the masthead and any side type or anything like that. So, I knew I had to get that. I knew they probably weren’t going to put a tight, grainy, dark black and white shot on the cover. They might now, but at the time it just wasn’t gonna sell. So, they used more of the brighter colors, and in the end the backdrop was pink.
I would go into a shoot and do what they needed me to do, and then do what I wanted to do. Now, if and when I get work, I just wanna do it the way I wanna do it, because it’s just not worth anybody’s time or energy to do it otherwise. You know?
At the time, I remember he was obsessed with this Ren and Stimpy doll, but I could never print these in the dark room, back in the day, because the lighting is really, like, I missed the lighting in his eyes. But with digital now, digital scanning and technology, it’s a lot easier to resurrect some of this stuff. So, yeah, he was, goofing around doing dopey kinda folk singer poses here with his hands.
1x: So you mentioned you were shooting with both the Nikon and Hasselblad, which camera did you take this shot with?
Peterson: This was on the Hasselblad with a wide angle, actually a 40mm. It was tight in that hotel room, I mean, I’m like right on top of him. Backed up against the chest of drawers. It’s a wide lens, so it distorts. You can kinda see his hands are a little bigger, and his head is not that small. So yea, this was a Hasselblad 40, which is mostly intended for architectural use, but I pushed the limits of it and I would later use similar Hasselblad, a super-wide, which is a 38, fixed 38, for my break dancing images.
1x: What were the development techniques you were using early on?
Charles Peterson: A lot of these negatives are really filthy with these photo flow stains on it. There was this finishing rinse, and if you don’t get it done right, you can have these water rings. Lots and lots of dust. I’m trying to think where, but some of the negatives have a stamp with the 1201 East Howell. 11th and Howell. They were these crummy apartments that we were paying, I don’t know, 200 dollars a month rent for, and half the time we didn’t even bother to pay that until we got threatened with eviction. We knew these were tear downs, for the most part, so we did whatever we want. In the kitchen I put in a six-foot acrylic pre-built sink with just 2 by 4 frame, and the filter plumbing, regulation valve, and all that. I just slapped it to the wall. Then I had a dark room, one counter for chemicals, and then we fixed food on another. So, that was my darkroom at the time. It wasn’t really…it was always filthy… but on the photos it depends, I can see when I go to scan where some of it is immaculate and others are just not. The bigger, 120 shots are more difficult, since they have much larger surface area for dust to collect.
1x: So why was the shoot on New Year’s Day? Were they playing a show the night before? What time of day were you shooting?
Peterson: It was around 11 o’clock at night on January 1st, New Year’s Day. I can’t recall why, but I think we were supposed to do it earlier and then it got pushed, but the magazines all do stuff two or three months out. Neither of us were prepared to do this photo shoot, let’s put it that way. And, actually, this was right before the huge entourage came …
1x: What was the timeframe? What album were they about to release?
Peterson: This was 1993, so this was pre-In Utero and all that, leading up to that. But there was no hair and makeup, or stylists, or obviously, they just told us “you guys do this thing for a cover.”
1x: Tell me more about the Advocate article, are they local or national?
Peterson: It’s national. It wasn’t a big-money job per se or anything. It was like a grand of 1500 or something. Which is, in some way, more than you get now, really. But I think just because we were both just out of our depth, at least with the cover, making a cover image aspect of it.
1x: So, even though they were the kind of the last big band to come out of Seattle, they ended up being the biggest, so by that time you were already pretty well established right?
Peterson: Yeah, it’s actually in Kurt’s journals that they released, essentially his diaries. There’s a passage about things to do, signing up with Sub Pop, and getting Charles Peterson and Alice Wheeler to take our picture and make us famous, and blah blah blah.
But the first show that I photographed them, was in 1989. Kurt actually had a Soundgarden sticker on his guitar. He’s turning to the side with his hair down, a classic grunge shot.
1x: So previously you had done live shots mostly? Not as much staged studio type shots?
Peterson: Up to that point, I’d certainly done studio sessions. I did quite a bit, I knew what I was doing, but I was never really that happy with many of my decisions, doing studio work. I don’t know why. I’m the kind of person that I would be happy with what they call a daylight studio. If you just had a big, white backdrop with huge skylights or something, that would be cool. More natural light, and not having to worry about positioning lights.
At the time back then it was trendy to use these colored gels. At the end of the day, it was so dated and it makes reproduction difficult. You’re really limited by your choices. However, in some ways using those colored gels and now converting to black and white, I can go in with a channel mixer, the colors, and actually get quite nice tones from them. They’re really quite sharp.
But I tried a lot with the Hasselblad and I shot quite a bit in medium format. But then, later on when I went on to do Cipher, my break dancing book, I shot that all in medium format. So I took what I had learned from shooting live in 35 millimeter and translated that to medium format, and shot the break dancers that way. It liberated medium format more for me, and instead of sort of utilizing it just in this portrait-type situation, you’re actually using it to capture this real free-flowing action, and not even looking through the viewfinder most of the time. You’re just shooting. Really burning through film.
1x: You said you first started taking photos when you were young, when did the blurs and these other types of experimenting come into play? Were you not getting the shots that you wanted with more crisp exposures, or just wanting to try something new?
Peterson: No, I’d seen some examples of it: Gary Winogrand, Ft. Worth Rodeo shots, and then there was some sports stuff, but I was like, “Oh, how does this do?” and I did a little bit of research, which, in those days, involved going to the library. There’s no internet, so it wasn’t as easy as “Oh, you just get this technique, like that, with this setting on your camera.” It’s something now where anyone can do it, but even now then there’s the next step, which is doing it right, and using it in the intention. I learned how to do that technique, and then I just kept honing it and honing it. Sometimes it would just go way too overboard, and sometimes not enough. At the end of the day, I became known for that blurry lights and motion, but some of my most iconic photographs, they don’t have that many blurry lights in it.
1x: Most do seem to have a fair amount of motion to them though …
Peterson: They’ve got motion, and composition, and moment and all those important things. What I did do, is I became quite adept at using a portable strobe. A lot of our early stuff was shot with the strobe off-camera. I’d use a cord attached to the camera, and taped an extra battery pack to the flash itself, and I’d have a little extra juice. I would hold the camera down here, and the flash above my head, or whatever, off to the side, and using a wider lens I would just pre focus a lot of the time. Then going in and using diffusion on the flash.
Once I would go into the dark room, and it’s easier now, with digital scanning, but I was doing a lot of dodging and burning to balance things out. You get a really natural look that way, versus the generic maximum rock n’ roll, where it’s just all bright, the singer’s all way washed out, then there’s just nothing behind him and that’s that.
I went to art school. I went for photography, and I got my BFA at the University of Washington. Growing up, in high school I was aware of all the fine art photographers from the 50s, 60s and 70s, so I learned all these techniques and I read constantly. I became very good in the darkroom very early on. I knew what I wanted and then just kept working at honing it. Sometimes I probably could’ve done things, shot other stuff and looked at things somewhat differently. A lot of that is just maturing, as well.
1x: Would this be the only shoot you did that was just Kurt, that wasn’t in a band setting?
Peterson: When I think about it…yeah, really, it was. Yeah. It is odd that when I think back on it. I mean, in retrospect, Jesus, I should’ve just trailed around behind these guys like a lost puppy. But I had all my other life going on, and bands to shoot. A lot of the times they would go travel, and like I said, work with every photographer under the sun in New York, Los Angeles and England, wherever they were. Then they’d come back here and it just wasn’t like, “Oh, hey, let’s go do a photo shoot.” But I mean I was at Frances’ first birthday party, I just went and I shot like, I don’t know, probably like 40 or 50 SX-70s, Polaroids, and then just gave ’em to Kurt at the end of the day. A couple of those are in that ‘Cobain Unseen’, his storage locker book. But, yeah, it was all pretty casual.
Quite often one of the reasons why is because they were higher caliber photographers with big budgets, magazines willing to pay for all that film and processing, etc, to get that. And, I didn’t have that. But, one thing that art directors have said, likes of Art Chantry and Jeff Kleinsmith, etc. that I’ve worked with, is that I have a very high use rate, hit rate. They look at a proof sheet and they’re like, “Well, we could use this, this, this.” If it didn’t have this insanely iconic image, here, well this one would become the iconic. It’s just kind of the pecking order, and you get down to the end and they’re all really usable, all for different reasons. Which has always has become a challenge to edit, especially now. Looking back, and I really want to retell the history a little differently with a new book, and use some images that haven’t been seen before. Images that, because of the march of time, just continue to take on sort of new intrigue or interest about them.
Charles Peterson was interviewed at his home in Seattle, Washington by 1xRUN Editor-In-Chief Pietro Truba. He has previously interviewed Niagara, Leni & John Sinclair, Ricky Powell, Doze Green, Fred Armisen, Janette Beckman and Shepard Fairey among others for 1xRUN. Follow him @pietrotruba