Behind the Lens of the Rock Photographer Who Shot Early Nirvana and His Favorite Beatle

Some of rock photographer Chris Cuffaro's many superstar subjects: Perry Farrell, The Game, Gwen Stefani and George Michael
Some of rock photographer Chris Cuffaro's many superstar subjects: Perry Farrell, The Game, Gwen Stefani and George Michael
Chris Cuffaro

You’ve probably already seen the faces that populate Chris Cuffaro’s “Greatest Hits” photo exhibit. They’re some of the most famous musicians of the last few decades.

From Gwen Stefani to Morrissey, George Michael to Ice Cube, Cuffaro’s subjects are the key players in recent music history. Although it may only take a few moments to appreciate the beauty and realness in each of the few dozen of his favorite black and white portraits currently on display in West Hollywood, it took Cuffaro quite some time to cut his career-spanning collection down to a single exhibit and printed catalog.

“The first thing I did was decide on black and white," he says. "The second step was just grabbing images and throwing them in folders on my Mac. I had like 1,200, so then I decided it had to be portraits. It took me close to a year to get to the 100 that ended up in the catalog."

He says there are only three people whose opinions of his photography matter to him.  "So I listened to them, and we narrowed it down," he says. "I think these 100 represent me and my work.”

After initially opening at Gibson Brands on Sunset (where Tower Records used to be), Cuffaro’s exhibit moved down the boulevard to the Mr. MusicHead Gallery. It will remain there at least through the end of March, thanks to the buzz the exhibit generated. The exhibit include his portraits that run the gamut, from The Game brandishing a toothpick to pre-fame Nirvana hanging out around Seattle.

Long before the 56-year-old became one of the most established and respected music photographers in the world, he was a teenager living in San Jose who enjoyed rocking out and taking photos. Things began to take off when HE moved to L.A. in the late '80s and shot some of the biggest artists of that era. He then went up to Seattle to shoot a few of the local bands that were breaking in the Pacific Northwest.

Nirvana, March 20, 1991, Seattle
Nirvana, March 20, 1991, Seattle
Chris Cuffaro

“I was the L.A. guy coming into Seattle – and I would get shit from them – but I was the first guy to go shoot them and bring it back to L.A.,” Cuffaro says of bands such as Pearl Jam and Nirvana. “In 1991, I had more friends become millionaires than I’ve ever had in my life."

He says that at the beginning of 1991, he was giving a young Eddie Vedder guitars and buying drumsticks for up-and-comer Dave Grohl. He recalls that he flew Vedder's girlfriend down to L.A. so she could see Pearl Jam play on the same stage as Fugazi.

"You can see when a band starts making money, because they have clean clothes," he says. "Eddie Vedder wore the same T-shirt for like five years, and then they started making money and he got a new green T-shirt.”

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Cuffaro says Morrissey was as boring and depressing as one would expect (although he's almost smiling in one of Cuffaro's photos); Motley Crue members acted like a bunch of junior high kids; gangster rappers like Ice-T were incredibly nice; and yes, meeting his favorite Beatle was everything he ever dreamed it would be.

“I was shooting George Harrison right before the album Cloud Nine came out, and I was only supposed to have 10 minutes with him,” Cuffaro says. “He had just landed, so he plays the record for us and says ‘You’re the first people in the United States to hear this record.’ Like holy fuck, he’s my favorite Beatle and next thing I know I’m spending two hours with him and we’re talking about A Hard Day’s Night. It was amazing.”

Chris Cuffaro’s "Greatest Hits" exhibit will be at Mr. MusicHead Gallery through March 31.

Eddie Vedder, January 18, 1992, Seattle
Eddie Vedder, January 18, 1992, Seattle
Chris Cuffaro

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