Kurt Cobain by Jesse Frohman, August 1993. Every photographer wants to take that picture. To steal a moment that endures, that traverses the globe, and becomes emblematic of the subject beyond just a freeze frame in time. In terms of music there are countless examples—like that shot of Iggy Pop, snapped by Mick Rock on the cover of Raw Power; Debbie Harry in her torn up Vultures shirt; Jim Morrison topless and clench-jawed; Johnny Cash, middle finger flexed; The Clash’s Paul Simonon bent in two, bass upended moments before he smashed it. You know these pictures without seeing them. Did those photographers realize they had it when they snapped it? No doubt there’s a gut feeling, but its time that truly elevates.
In the summer of 1993, photographer Jesse Frohman was given an assignment by the London Observer’s Sunday Magazine: he was to spend five hours with Nirvana in New York City. It was for the cover and it turned out to be the last formal shoot Kurt Cobain took part in before his suicide some eight months later. What actually occurred was a much-truncated session at the hotel, on the street, and during soundcheck at the Roseland Ballroom, ahead of their show that evening. Cobain was, by Frohman’s own admission, pretty out of it, but it did yield the money shot in full-length: Cobain swaddled in a leopard print coat and hunting cap, impenetrable bug-eyed shades, mouth agape. Frohman describes him as looking like he’s on a hanger; he looks like he couldn’t stand up straight if he tried. How could a subject so covered up even make a connection with the viewer really? Well because it’s Kurt and he just does.
Although Frohman is trained to look for that single defining frame, in recent years he’s come to view that afternoon’s worth of film rather differently. In 2012 he selected a handful of shots for an exhibition, and The Last Session—his coffee table book published this month—reveals not only the story of the day, but also what has become the iconic portrait is really just one of many.
“I was looking at what I thought were rejects at first and now I see those pictures as individual pictures in their own light,” explains Frohman of his selection process. “If I were to hang one on my wall I might not choose one of those, but they’re phenomenal portraits and I think they offer up a really telling moment in someone’s life.”
Having come up in New York City in the 80s, landing a job with photography legend Irving Penn not long after he graduated, Frohman has shot everyone from Run DMC to Woody Allen to Derek Jeter to James Brown to Nick Cave. Recently we met up with Frohman to talk the tricks of the trade, what happened during that Nirvana photo session, and the enduring appeal of Kurt Cobain—entirely apart from Nirvana’s musical legacy.
You worked with Irving Penn five years very early on in your career. The experience must have been invaluable.
I learned everything from him. I mean, you learn by doing, but I definitely learned the fundamentals from him: he taught me how to see. I learned from the master, you know? He wasn’t a teacher, he didn’t sit down and explain things, but it was great because we did a combination of fashion portraiture and still life and all that together really made the difference in understanding what photography was and what a good picture was. He was charming, like a professor or grandfather, but intimidating.
In general who do you find to be the more difficult to shoot, actors or musicians?
Funnily enough actors are probably the most difficult people in general. [Laughs.] Some of them can be the nicest, but often they’re the most difficult because they’re so vain and always want to be inside a role and can’t just be themselves. They don’t mind fashion, they don’t mind playing the role, but if you can get them to just be them—sometimes that’s the trick. But artists really get it. Musicians usually get it because they want to play.
Do you have any techniques for getting difficult subjects to loosen up?
For sure. I wish I had a gun with real ammo. Not to shoot them, but sometimes a bullet through a ceiling is pretty impressive. I think Sam Peckinpah used to do that. I think he also meant it! He could be a total fascist. But sometimes he just wanted to get a rise out of people, wake them up. You’ve got to play it by ear. Get a little more aggressive, sometimes get a little more touchy feely. Pose them. Some you have to be very quiet and just let them do their thing. That shoot with Kurt was a combination. I had to kind of let him to his thing, but at times I realized I had to really pose him because otherwise I wasn’t going to get anything [Laughs.] Because he came in so stoned, I had to talk to him, keep his focus on me.
Initially you wanted to shoot Nirvana in Central Park…
I saw them kind of resting on rocks. I like some of those wide angle, sitting on the rock, tree pictures that I remember from the 60s. I didn’t really see them as a nature band, but I certainly didn’t see them as a primarily a New York band. I just thought they were very unpretentious, thought that I would do something kind of raw. Of course none of that happened because when I went to the hotel the manager came and met me and said, “They don’t have time to do a shoot like that.” He reserved the conference room in the basement of the hotel.
A conference room in a hotel: the least glamorous place ever.
They had a table in the conference room that was literally half the size of the room. We had to dismantle it so we could pile it up in the corner, but it actually worked out great. Very private. And even though it was only for a half an hour, I had their full attention for half an hour.
Do you think it’s funny that grunge has come back again in terms of fashion?
Oh I’m not surprised. I mean everything comes back. It’s surprising in a way because grunge wasn’t that big of a deal, fashion-wise—it’s basically t-shirts and jeans, it wasn’t like the 60s. But it’s not just because of grunge. I think Kurt represents something much bigger. It’s all about him walking his own path and being true to himself. Everything is sort of homogenized today, kids want to be individuals, and they look at Kurt and say, “He was an individual.”
I’m not saying kids are interested in the fact that he was depressed, or did a lot of drugs, or eventually, his suicide. The interesting thing is that he was an individual who really didn’t care what anyone else thought. Stick to your own guns, be who you are, and he represents that in a very cool way. Everyone else that was like that is too far back now—Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison—whereas Kurt is very relevant, My generation would be interested in his pictures, but it’s the younger generation that feeds the fire of his material, they’re the ones that get really excited, even if they’re not huge followers of the music. That’s what’s fascinating to me. A lot of kids don’t even listen to Nirvana, they might know a song or two, and yet they’re huge Kurt Cobain fans. You do find both, but I’m surprised to find some that are really Kurt Cobain fans without being Nirvana fans. Never expected that.
How do you come into contact with these people?
They find me—through social media or emails. I can show you something someone sent me that’s some kind of documentary where they interview a lot of kids specifically about this. They were saying, “I’m not a huge Nirvana fan, but I love Kurt Cobain.” They listen to his music and say “Ah! That’s a great song!”
I’ve never really thought about it like that. I guess growing up with Nirvana, I loved their music and so I loved Kurt, and that was impossible to separate. But then when he killed himself, his personal legacy became as famous as their music if not more so.
Clearly the music is amazing, there are kids who love the music, but I’m saying it’s not an exclusive thing to be a Kurt Cobain fan you have to be a Nirvana fan.
And what was he like when you met him? Was he engaged? Did he want to be there?
He was really engaged, but he was partly out of it—it was a weird kind of engagement. He wasn’t coherent, but he got into his own world and the world of the photo shoot. He wasn’t checking his watch, in that way he was engaged, but he was also definitely in his own world.
Part of the book is a bunch of shots of Kurt outside Roseland with his fans. What was he like with them?
He was really polite. He seemed like he really had his act together. His fans were very much like him, they dressed like him, they weren’t screaming Elvis fans, they were quiet, very cool, a little nerdy. It was maybe fifty, sixty people. He really seemed to enjoy them. I thought he would just sign a few autographs and walk in, but he really was polite and nice. He didn’t talk, but he stood there and signed every autograph.
Did you ever get to look him in the eye? Did he ever take off his sunglasses?
Oh yeah, but not for the camera. [Laughs.]
But you did see them?
Yeah, he does have eyes! [Laughs.] He actually took his glasses off to show me how bad his eyes were and that’s why we couldn’t shoot them.
Were they just completely bloodshot?
Yeah and I’m surprised he even cared. But for some reason he cared. And also, he liked wearing the glasses. When we went to Roseland he took them off. So I have a picture of him there without them on. But he really enjoyed wearing them and I think those were part of his persona, plus, he didn’t look that good.
What have are you working on now that you’re excited about?
I’m working on a book on guns and flowers. I’m constantly shooting. I’m always intrigued to meet new people when I do portraits. That’s the best thing about the portraits really is I get to share a few minutes with someone who’s usually interesting to me. It’s an incredibly intimate experience I think.
It can be, and it should be! Really good shoots have that moment of intimacy that’s really strong. Even if you never talk to them again, or you never strike up any kind of a friendship beyond that, if it’s a really good shoot you usually have a wonderful intimate moment.