You might not know his name, but you certainly know his work. On the 20th anniversary of “Smells like Teen Spirit”'s debut on MTV, we spoke with Kirk Weddle, who shot the cover image of Nevermind. This post is full of great pictures from that shoot, plus a particularly rare one at the bottom.
Weddle, who lives in Austin, told us all about the gloomy June day he spent underwater in a dirty pool in Pasadena with Nirvana back in 1991. The label didn't want to fork over $7,500 to license a stock image so they hired Weddle, who shot all of the underwater photographs for $1,000.
What were your impressions of Cobain, Grohl and Novoselic? Were they easy to work with?
Nice bunch of guys. No big entourage. When I shot them they were just getting hot. It was just a couple months after Nevermind was released.
Did anything funny or bizarre moments happen during the shoot?
The shoot was a headache; bad weather, bad swimming pool, cloudy water. Kurt was a couple hours late and then went right to sleep at the side of the pool, and nobody wanted to wake him up. It was a bad call to shoot a rock band in the morning. They were in the middle of a tour and they had to travel as soon as I could wrap the shoot.
Had you heard of Nirvana prior to the shoot? Were you a fan of their music?
I had never heard of them. It took a little while for me to get into their music. At the time I was listening mostly to old country music and Nirvana ain't country. I saw them live the night before the shoot, and they really blew me away.
Was music played during the shoot?
I don't even know. I was underwater the whole damn day.
Was shooting the baby underwater the main concept or a thought you conceived while shooting? I've heard so many different stories.
I wish I could take credit for the concept of the album. I think Robert Fisher [Art Director at Geffen] and Kurt came up with the idea. It's a very strong concept, a baby underwater, unable to breath, going after the almighty dollar.
This was kind of a low budget job. I had never heard of Nirvana. Not many people had. I was on my own to get the image. Some friends of mine had just had a baby, and they are brave and open people, so I asked if I could photograph their son Spencer. He was four months old and had never been in the water. I set up a camera on a tripod underwater and practiced with a doll. I had a lifeguard in the water right next to the camera. Rick [Spencer's father], tucked little Spencer in the water and gave him a push toward Renta [Spencer mother]. I shot about 10 frames as he peacefully drifted by. Renta pulled him out and we shot one more round and he began to cry. So we quit. I shot that image on half a roll of film.
You've mentioned in the past that you photographed a baby girl.
After I shot Spencer [Elden], the little boy baby, I was a bit worried because it was such a 'dick shot.' When you look at that shot your eye goes right to the kid's penis. I only had half a dozen usable shots, so I went to a baby swim school and shot a few more babies. I was just trying to give the client a few choices and I am very happy they picked the image that they did.
Did you shoot Spencer for any of the reenactments of the image?
Yeah, I shot him when he was 10 for Rolling Stone. I would like to shoot him again now that he is 20.
Were you humored, annoyed or indifferent when you found a dollar bill was added to the image?
I like the bill. The bill makes the shot.
You've said you've moved on, but after the record exploded it must have felt good to be a part of something so iconic. Are you proud of it now?
I am proud of that image. It a great shot, I think it holds up. I just don't talk about it too much.
Did it open any interesting doors for you?
Yeah absolutely, I got quite a bit of work from it.
Work from any other bands?
I have [shot other bands] but none of them had success like Nirvana. The Nevermind album was so successful. It was a perfect storm. Nirvana changed music and fashion. They were so popular… and at the height of their success Kurt commits suicide.
Another untimely addition to the dreaded '27' club. Beside underwater photography, environmental portraiture is your other specialty. Which do you prefer?
I like them both. Underwater photography is much harder. The models can't breath and they can't see. I can't talk to the model, so it's a difficult and very slow process. On a commercial shoot, I cast models underwater to see how they can handle it. Shooting celebrities underwater is pretty dicey. From a technical stand point, shooting underwater digitally is way easier than film. It used to be such a bitch to stop shooting and change cameras or load film.