Not every vibrant music scene has that one stalwart photographer whose style, timing, and eye were there from the beginning to both document and shape the visual presence of the bands. Seattle was lucky. Seattle had Charles Peterson. With a camera always at hand and a spot right in the front of the pit, Peterson is responsible for most of the most iconic images of the late 80’s/early 90s Seattle scene.
Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Mudhoney, Alice In Chains. He shot them all from the time they were playing small, packed sweaty Seattle clubs into the big-time of huge arenas. And his black and white verité shots — with artful blurs that seemed to capture the action — graced so many single and album covers it literally became the look of Sub Pop. With the 20th anniversary celebrations of Pearl Jam’s “Ten” and Nirvana’s “Nevermind” well underway with films, special shows, books, reissues and more, Peterson, whose music photography is collected in the books “Screaming Life,” “Touch Me I’m Sick,” “Pearl Jam Place/Date” and “Cypher,” has curated a special photo gallery of some of his greatest shots of these bands just for Billboard.com, complete with his own comments on each photograph.
PHOTO GALLERY: Charles Peterson’s shots of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and more chosen and captioned by Peterson himself.
“I’ve been interested in photography since I was about seven years old,” the Bothell, WA native says of his start. “In junior high and high school, I photographed for the yearbook and newspaper. And then college at UW [University of Washington at Seattle], is where I met [future Green River/Mudhoney frontman] Mark Arm, [future Sub Pop co-founder] Bruce Pavitt, and all those people. It was to bring together my interest in photography and music.”
Early on, Peterson explains, “I did some photos for [Green River], really just a college assignment. And Mark showed them these pictures to Bruce said, ‘Oh my god, he totally captured the energy! I want to use these on the record cover!’ And there was no money ever talked about. It was just a non-issue because we were excited about music and had day jobs. [It was] just something to do to use our individual talents.”
His instantly recognizable photographic style, it came about naturally. “I always wanted to freeze that exact moment and then let the ambient light do its thing with a longer shutter speed,” Peterson says. “I took it to the extreme, but also when I needed to, I pulled back with it too. Because if it’s all blur it just becomes kinda meaningless. So it’s just really trying to find that right balance.”
Peterson, of course, is well known for his images of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, who he says was always an interesting subject to photograph. “I’ve never really seen a bad photo of Kurt. He liked photographers and photography. He would give you as much time as you wanted and he just had this face like a movie star or something. He’s one of those people in person who are sort of like, a homeless person curled up under a rock [laughs]. But when you take his picture, he’s just gorgeous.”
Shooting Nirvana at the 1992 Reading Festival in England was one of Peterson’s favorite moments. “I was always the photographer allowed onstage, or at least that side of the stage. And I remember seeing the massive stage with a 15-foot drop, out to a sea of like 45,000 people per night, just bobbing up and down and sweat just steaming off them and singing along to the chorus. I shot the whole show and it was just really epic. Probably as close as you can get to some sort of religious experience within a concert experience.”
And while he certainly shot many Nirvana concerts, it was Pearl Jam that he actually went on tour with, in 1996. “Pearl Jam — that was really one of the best times of my life… I went to North Carolina. Shot that show and that was really fun and then like a week later [their manager] was like “Do you want to go to Europe for two weeks?” We met up in Prague. The first night [Pearl Jam singer] Eddie [Vedder] and I had a drink at the bar and he’s like, “I just want you to do whatever you need to do. Go behind the drums! Climb up the PA! Like shoot anywhere you want backstage.” We had a good relationship and it was fun. We played a lot of Scrabble on that tour. Definitely not groupies, more like Scrabble!”
After the huge buzz on Seattle and all things “grunge” died down in the ’90s, Peterson looked further afield, shooting internationally and capturing music subcultures like breakdancers, as seen in his book “Cypher.” “I felt pigeonholed within the music photo industry, particularly after Kurt died  and the whole scene kinda collapsed,” Peterson says. “It was sorta like, “Well, if we needed that blurry, grainy, black and white thing, we’d call Charles Peterson.” But they never needed that. That was part of the reason I sort of moved out of town for a couple years and I went traveling to quite a few places like Vietnam and Southeast Asia. I had to go out there and see some different stuff just to prove to myself it was about my talent and not just about, you know, famous dead rock stars.”