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Art book captures Nirvana’s roots

Famed grunge photographer ‘reclaims’ early days

By Michael Rietmulder, The Seattle Times
Published: March 2, 2024, 5:29am

SEATTLE — If you lived it, the images he created are a reflection of your past. If you didn’t, Charles Peterson’s artistry assuredly shaped your understanding of the cramped Seattle clubs and independent spirit that incubated the grunge movement.

As Sub Pop’s go-to photographer, Peterson’s work quickly became synonymous with grunge, his black-and-white pictures gracing early album covers by Soundgarden and Mudhoney and accompanying decades of magazine articles across the globe that wanted a glimpse into the Seattle scene. Frequently front row, camera in hand, at local shows, Peterson didn’t just capture the recalcitrance and intensity of the era’s underground rock scene, his aesthetic choices accentuated it.

On Feb. 20, what would’ve been Kurt Cobain’s 57th birthday, Peterson released his latest book, “ Charles Peterson’s Nirvana,” which compiles his photographs of the famed Seattle rockers from their Washington shows leading up to the 1989 “Bleach” release through their fabled headlining set at Reading Festival in 1992 and beyond. More of an “art book,” as Peterson describes it, than a complete history and overview of the band, the beautifully packaged collection does serve as a historical document, albeit one twisted and filtered through Peterson’s artful lens.

With the foreword written by Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, the book of primarily concert photos is woven together nonchronologically with the intent of conveying the emotion and intensity of the band’s early performances. We recently spoke with the Seattle photographer. This conversation has been edited for concision.

Can you tell me about the process and what you were looking for as you went through your photos?

You can approach a subject like Nirvana in various ways. You can try and tell their history, you can try and be about a celebration of the band. I couldn’t find my way through that and I didn’t want it to be a band book. I wanted it to be an artistic statement.

Because there’s been so much written and put out on Nirvana, I needed to find my angle to it, and that was the art of my photographs. And the most artistic of my photographs is obviously the live ones. Putting on Nirvana music and focusing on “How do the images represent that music in an emotional way?” — that’s the thread that I found.

How did you develop your style back then?

I went to art school, I got a degree in photography at the University of Washington. Even in high school, I knew my art photographers. I was inspired by them at the same time I was inspired by punk and later grunge. I brought my art school knowledge to it and I didn’t want to make, like, the perfect magazine photograph of the singer at the microphone. I wanted to make art and emotion out of these images.

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When you first started shooting shows, what was that initial drive?

I was friends with a lot of the musicians. I was (college) roommates with Mark Arm from Mudhoney. I initially started doing it because, well, my friends are in these bands and they’re playing this great music and people are going nuts at their shows, and yeah, I wanna go out and shoot this and see what I can make of it. But I wasn’t necessarily beholden to anyone, for publication or whatever, a record label or anything like that, so I was able to freely experiment at the same time as the bands were experimenting.

In the book, you mention this mutual admiration between you (and Kurt) that you didn’t realize until after his death. Can you tell me about that?

He has in his journals, pre-Sub Pop, a list of things that he needed to do to essentially become, in his own self-deprecatory way, a “rock star.” He had this list and one of ’em was “Get your photo taken by Charles Peterson and Alice Wheeler,” who was a photographer in the scene at the time.

How did you feel when you read that?

I was flattered. It’s funny, the whole hindsight now, Nirvana, they weren’t the Nirvana that most people think of as Nirvana. The “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” going to the Grammys and all that stuff. They were just dudes from Aberdeen and they had to ingratiate themselves into the Seattle scene. They had to impress Soundgarden and Mudhoney and all that.

As they blew up, at a big festival like Reading, what was the level of access you had with the band?

Reading, I was one of two photographers onstage maybe. A large part of it was just like Anton, their tour manager, grabbing me and saying, “Come with me now! Come with me now!” and we’d all run up. I know that at Reading, Kurt liked me being there onstage. I could just tell.

What was your first connection with Nirvana? Sub Pop?

It was definitely Sub Pop. I actually went to the first gig that they played. It was a Sub Pop showcase at the Vogue on a Sunday night or whatever. I didn’t even take any pictures (of Nirvana), stupidly. I had taken pictures of the opening band, Blood Circus, because, hey, Blood Circus is gonna be huge (laughs). Then Nirvana, they came out and for whatever reason Kurt had all the lights down, practically turned off. I said to Jonathan (Poneman, Sub Pop’s co-founder), “Eh, I’m not impressed.” Then the next time I saw them at a bigger show, opening up for the likes of Tad and Mudhoney and stuff at the UW, it was almost like seeing a different band. I was totally blown away.

When you look back on the time you spent around the band, how do you remember that period?

It can be somewhat bittersweet, you know? I try and push forward the good moments.