Through a Grungy Lens
April 26, 2000
Screaming Life isn't really a chronicle of the Seattle music scene -- that collision of time and place and sound from which a young songwriter named Kurt Cobain emerged to change the rock world. But photographer Charles Peterson's book does trace the Seattle scene's history, starting 10 years ago with bands like the U-Men and Green River and continuing on to the days of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden. Peterson started as an inspired amateur and within a decade -- side by side with the bands he photographed -- grew into a maverick professional. His gritty images -- of sweaty mosh-pit loads of kids writhing to the raw sounds of those who would be stars, bands playing on stages small enough to fit in the back of a Nissan pick-up -- helped define the aesthetic that came to be known as grunge. His camera was there when Soundgarden's shirtless Chris Cornell struck the Christ-like pose that ended up on Louder Than Love, when Cobain tumbled backward into the drumkit at Raji's in 1990, when Matt Lukin and Mark Arm of Mudhoney decided to piss in the sinks at Bristol University. His photographs captured more than just the look of Seattle; they hinted at the volume, the intensity, the speed, and even the smells and the attitude that hung like cigarette-smoke clouds in the air that Cobain, Cornell, Lukin, and Arm breathed. As Nirvana biographer Michael Azerrad points out in his preface to Screaming Life (which is subtitled A Chronicle of the Seattle Music Scene), Peterson -- along with the artists, the SubPop label, and producer Jack Endino -- was part of the vital formula that made Seattle the right place at the right time. Like the bands he photographed, Peterson began his career as a fan of largely ignored homegrown post-punk in a city with a tight-knit club scene. One of the first images in Screaming Life is an audience shot taken at a 1983 Replacements show -- Beat Happening's Heather Lewis, Kill Rock Stars' Slim Moon, and Mark Arm, Alex Shumway, and Steve Turner of Green River are all clearly visible in the audience. "I wasn't seriously photographing shows at that point," explains Peterson via phone from his Seattle studio. "I was more interested in taking pictures of my friends. And as time went on, nobody really realized what was happening. The scene was all of like 20 or 30 people. I was living with Mark from Mudhoney when he started Green River. So when they needed photographs for their record, they asked me and that was my first real photo shoot." Peterson photographed Green River -- future Pearl Jam founders Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard, as well as Mudhoney's Mark Arm and Steve Turner -- posed in front of a white backdrop in '85 for their Homestead debut. That unexceptional shot is included in Screaming Life. But it's with the photograph of the group that Peterson took a year later, the one SubPop used as the publicity shot for Dry As a Bone, that Peterson's defining aesthetic took shape. He caught the band in mid set and, using an old trick that involves leaving the shutter open and then having the flash go off, produced the blurred image of a grungy outfit in action. The result communicated the bristling sonic fury of what would later be labeled the Seattle sound, and it framed the band as anything but pretty-boy rock stars. "The bands themselves just posed in front of a backdrop were pretty unassuming," he admits. "But live they were in their element. The thing about the shows then is that they were so high-energy and, for lack of a better word, outrageous. And the audience was so much a part of it. The audience was as wild if not wilder than the bands, and I really wanted to capture that. Using wide-angle lenses helped. I used a flash but I tried not to make the shots as static as most flash shots are -- by using the stage lights to blur things and to give the photographs a sense of ambiance and movement." Of course, the kind of live photography Peterson specialized in has its drawbacks. "You know how some musicians go through lots of guitars? Well, I'm a little like that with cameras. I remember a couple of shows that were so hot that I'd have to come home and blow-dry out the inside of the camera. It was like being in the jungle or something. There I would be barely able to stand from drinking too much, blow-drying out my camera after a Mudhoney show at 2 a.m." Still, his persistence put him in a position to capture some of the most arresting images that exist of the scene -- and of Kurt Cobain, who graces the cover of Screaming Life in mid tumble, head on the ground and feet in the air. "The cover photo is sort of my triumph. It sums up what I was trying to do with live photography. I really don't remember how it happened, it was all so fast. I think he jumped and landed and fell over and pushed himself up with his feet onto his shoulders. It was pretty amazing because I was working with a camera that didn't have a motor drive. I just happened to catch the right moments." The right time at the right place. Unselfconscious spontaneity. That's what made Seattle so special. It wasn't planned. It just happened. These days Peterson has moved beyond live photography to moodier work that, like the striking shot of Chris Cornell in the studio, recalls Blue Note photographer Francis Wolf. "There never will be another Nirvana. They came from nowhere and I guess I did too. I remember watching Kurt autographing the 'Sliver' single for somebody at a record store and realizing that he was autographing a photo of mine. It hit me that Nirvana was going to be huge, and it was a weird feeling." Peterson took a picture of Cobain that day: Kurt huddled in the corner of Beehive records with a pen in one hand, his head in the other, and an overwhelmed, almost despairing look on his face. It's a telling image. But I prefer the photograph of Kurt smiling on stage in 1992 during an unannounced set opening for Mudhoney. It was the last time Peterson photographed Nirvana live.