Nirvana Photographer Charles Peterson Reflects On Kurt Cobain's Life & Legacy: Q&A

Kurt Cobain by Charles Peterson
Charles Peterson

Born and raised in Washington State, Charles Peterson and his camera were there as the Seattle music scene coalesced in the '80s. Sub Pop's defacto photographer and a master of the black-and-white live shot, Peterson would come to famously photograph Kurt Cobain and Nirvana throughout their all-too-brief existence.

Peterson shares 10 favorite photos he's taken of the Nirvana frontman, some never before published, and the stories behind them.

With Nirvana on the cusp of entering the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the 20th anniversary of Cobain's untimely passing, the man who captured so many glimpses of him on- and off-stage reflects on his life, his music, and why, an entire generation later, he still matters so much.

Billboard: How did you first meet Kurt?

Charles Peterson: Just through his performing. I remember a little bit later on, after seeing [Nirvana] the first couple of times, he came to a get-together over at my place downtown. I had a place right near Sub Pop. He just sat on the couch and didn't say anything and smoked cigarettes. He knew who I was. There was a piece in his journal about how he wanted to be photographed by Charles Peterson and become famous. But the first time I really talked to him was when I did the first promo photo shoot with them.

What was your first impression at that party?

Nirvana were outsiders to the Seattle scene. It was already pretty well-established at that point. They came along as these 'country bumpkin' interlopers, so to speak, and took it stratospheric… He had this kind of depressive mask about him, but I think it's just because he was shy. He was a shy person. I was kind of a shy person as well. It's neither a good mix for being a rock star or a photographer, but hey, that's just the way it went. But when he got on stage and I went to take pictures of him playing, it all gelled. Otherwise, we were just introverted, nerdy kids. [At the first promo shoot] I thought he was the sweetest guy, really nice. There were no rock star shenanigans about any of them. [Kurt] was shy and nice. [Sub Pop co-founder] Bruce Pavitt had sent me over. I was sort of the in-house Sup Pop photographer and they needed some promo pictures for 'Bleach.' The band was rehearsing out there [on Bainbridge Island].

You would go on to photograph them many times after that, both at shows and in candid moments. You saw glimpses of him as a friend, a dad, a bandmate, a musician.

Our trajectories would meet when they would meet. He was living in L.A. for a while. But a few times I went over to their place and stuff. Certainly with [his infant daughter] Frances, there's moments of brightness, but otherwise it was that kind of like, 'Jesus, you guys are still in your pajamas at 6 in the evening.' It certainly wasn't strange. But I think it was too much, too soon for him.

There's a familiar photo you took in '91 at an in-store performance right before "Nevermind," where Kurt sitting in a corner and people are everywhere. He just looks 'done.'

You could see that was like the first glimpse of just being overwhelmed. It was, 'I just want to play my music and have people hear it. But all of the rest of this stuff…' We talked a little bit about that later on, during our shoots. He mentioned he just wanted to get away from it all sometimes.  There's a picture of him just smiling in his PJ's. He was talking about how he wanted to buy a house in Scotland. He really liked Scotland and was going to buy a house in Scotland someday.

Why do you think he and Nirvana have remained so important?

On a bigger level, maybe even a historical level, I think that grunge and Nirvana was this last big musical movement before everything was virtually connected in real time all the time. Now things just move so quickly that there's really no ability for something to bubble up organically and be meaningful, not for an entire generation or world. And the music industry is a lot different, too. Shows are much bigger and more controlled because bands don't sell records like they used to... I can't stand going out and photographing shows anymore.

This was almost the last hurrah of this lineage of old-school rock n' roll. Nirvana's almost like a classic rock band now. Isn't that crazy? He would love it and he would hate it. I think he would hate it if he were still alive. This is really morbid, but him being dead, he would love that fact. He would find it quite ironic and amusing. If he had to actually live it, he might think otherwise.

Someone recently did a man-on-the-street asking teenagers if they knew Nirvana's music, and every single one said, "of course."

It's [because it's] finite. It's so finite. What is out there is out there. So any new little thing out there is adding to the puzzle, to the mystery. So that's why I think he keeps getting written about. It's not like, oh well, Kurt's 12th record is coming out next week, oh jeez. Roll your eyes a little bit, or, it's too bad he's exploring those tribal rhythms now [laughs]. There's none of that. There will never be any of that, for better or worse. Certainly I would love to have him here today with us making any old stupid music he would want to. I would much rather have that than what happened. But that's why there's that sort of appeal.

The elevation of dying young that happens?

Yes. They leave this legacy that can't be touched.

What do you think it is about Kurt's music that's make him so influential since then?

There's a few threads, but definitely the rags to riches [aspect]. He really did come from someplace most of us wouldn't want to come from. It's not like he was born uptown and moved to Williamsburg [Brooklyn] and grew a beard. No. He lived the real deal, which I think unfortunately probably contributed to his demise. I think people, particularly young people, can relate to that.

And there's his humbleness as well. He's kind of this humble prankster and a lot of people can relate to that, kids especially. He liked F-ing with the system. Not in a 'political with a capital P' sort of way. There was kind of a juvenilia about him to a degree which I think worked. [I took a] studio picture of him, which if you really blow it up, he's got written on his tennis shoes two different funky spellings of Fugazi. Here he is, in Converse and he writes on them with a Sharpie. There's something so beautiful and dynamic about his face.

Was he just as introverted onstage as off or did he come out of his shell when he performed?

He definitely came out of his shell. He didn't really have much between songs -- witty banter or anything like that -- he left that to Krist Novoselic if need be because quite often things did go wrong with their equipment. But, he became larger than life [onstage]: the voice that came out of him, the sound. he looked like kind of a frail person. I think he had bad spinal issues, scoliosis or something, so to see some of the stuff that he would do was pretty surprising.

Did you see Nirvana's dynamic as a band, how they worked with each other, in the process of shooting them?

More early on, Kurt was quite interactive with Chris. Later on, it seemed quite often they were up there doing their own thing. Of course they were so good that their own thing came together but it didn't have that same dynamic as in the early days.

Did it come to seem like more of a job?

I think so, yeah. Especially for Kurt.

What was seeing them in their club era before that?

Almost shamanic in a way. It was just this purging of this dark energy, but it was like good things too. It definitely propelled itself along. There was that punk-pop element to it. But at the same time, [you had] Kurt's raspy voice. It was pretty relentless. It was always amazing that there was just the three of them. When they were playing live, Kurt didn't care about perfection that much or at all. It was more about the unleashing. How does it feel? It was really refreshing.