Friends of P.

‘If you’re friends with P.

Well, then you’re friends with me…’

The Rentals (Sharp, 1995)

Apart from Anton Corbijn who reportedly ‘made’ artists successful (Quirins, 2012) it is usually the fame of the artist that has facilitated the photographer’s commercial success: Would we know of Kevin Cummins without Joy Division, Steve Gullick without Nirvana, Pennie Smith without The Clash, Glen E. Friedman without Fugazi, or Autumn deWilde without Elliott Smith?

I’m looking at the various books laying on my desk: Elliott Smith/Autumn deWilde by Autumn DeWilde, NIRVANA by Steve Gullick and Stephen Sweet, Joy Division by Kevin Cummins, Keep your eyes open: FUGAZI by Glen E. Friedman, Touch me I’m Sick by Charles Peterson, THE CLASH: before and after by Penny Smith. It would be fair to assume that none of the photographs that feature in these books were taken with the aim to feature in a book. We know of the wonderful fate of Pennie Smith’s photograph of Paul Simonon trashing his bass guitar – It ended up as cover of the album London Calling. We know of deWilde’s shots of Elliott Smith taken specifically to feature in the video of the song ‘Son of Sam’. We know of the many shots of Cobain that ended up in the various music and fashion magazines in the 1990s. We know that Cummin’s photographs of Joy Division were, as he himself acknowledges, shot ‘to accompany a small, live review or a feature on what was then an emerging band’ (Cummins, 2010).

Of course as a photographer you cannot control how the audience will see and interpret your photos on an album cover, a video or a magazine.  One would hope that you’d be able to have better control through the medium that is the monograph. Yet, this raises further questions: Should these photos feature in a book? Are there enough good shots to make it in a book? Can we hide behind the ‘but fans would love to see these previously unseen images of Kurt’. Should we wait until Courtney Love packs it in to retrace the rise and fall of the ‘Kurtney’? Are these books to be considered a betrayal of the photographer or do they constitute a genuine homage from the photographer/fan? Who benefits in the end?

Is Peterson’s book perpetuating how the mass media represented grunge, and for that matter how the music industry sold grunge – by concentrating on a handful of big stars with the rest of the pack thrown in for good measures and to suggest an illusory sense of homogeneity in the music scene? In those days these photos were there to satisfy a thirst for images, only assuming a mere illustrative function. Did photographs of Nirvana, Mudhoney and Pearl Jam really show the world what grunge was about or did they fabricate the grunge brand?

‘I’m also the photographer. And I find it hard to talk about what this all means. I never purport to having set out to photograph the history of this thing. That’s not my style’ Peterson (2007) writes. Yet his book and Gullick and Stweet’s book do exactly this: they contribute to writing and setting up in stone the history of grunge.

Having examined these books I feel that time and historical legacy have distanced the photographer/book author from the bygone fan. I also get the feeling that it’s something else that is creating this divide, something inescapable, something that is called commercial success. Yet, deWilde’s book, unlike the others, is not just about an artist and a photographer. It is also about photographing artists, and to some extent, about photography.

When photography meets music, the media does it in a way that both industries understand: by name dropping. And it goes like this for example:

‘Here we find shots not only of the big players – Buzzcocks, Joy Division/New Order, the Fall, the Smiths, Happy Mondays, the Stone Roses, Oasis – but of the less feted, such as Slaughter and the Dogs, A Certain Ratio, Vini Reilly, the Jazz Defectors. There are also essays and interviews by Paul Morley, Gavin Martin, Stuart Maconie and John Harris,…’

(Sawer, 2009)

 For galleries, the art school and artistic collaborations seem to be of equal importance to the name-dropping. Check out Pennie Smith’s short biography on the National Portrait Gallery website, easily condensed to: Twickenham Art School, worked with Barney Bubbles, covered Led Zeppelin and The Clash.

We may also want to check out in Maria Short’s book, a short introduction which could be also summarised as: Keith Morris: Guildford Art School, worked with David Bailey, covered Marc Bolan, Nick Drake, Janis Joplins, Ian Dury and Dr Feelgood (Short, 2011: 26).

It’s not because our topic at heart here is rock ‘n’ roll that photography needs to dumb down the discourse at play and in a way reinforce some of popular music’s strongest stereotypes, those that I hope most photographers cited here would have fought at some point in their career.

‘The final irony is that if the underground were to win, and through political struggle vanquish the evils of consumer capitalism, it would die. For what gives bohemia its love and rage and creativity is its uneasy embrace with the enemy’

(Duncombe, 1997: 194)

Book #1: ‘Touch me I’m Sick’ by Charles Peterson (second edition 2007)

I am a big Mudhoney fan.  I bought Peterson’s book because of the title ‘Touch me I’m sick’ – a song by Mudhoney. I had never heard of Charles Perterson.

I like Eddie Vedder’s introduction to the book. But then again, I like Eddie Vedder.

If this book is an outlet Peterson can control and ‘let the photographs maintain their dignity (Vedder, 2007), what is dignifying about celebrating youth getting wasted? Of course, the ‘selfish abandon, substance use, suicide, failed ambitions’ as Peterson (2007) writes, were part of the grunge scene, but let’s face it, these are part and parcel of popular music, and any of its music scene. Every generation has idolised junkies who died in some sordid and miserable way. So what’s new about grunge and the way the Seattle scene was photographed?

The piece, grandiosely entitled  ‘essay’, written by Jennie Boddy (publicist at Sub Pop and then at the PR firm Press Here) verbosely sells Peterson’s photographic talent. The first paragraph ends on this thought of hers: ‘I’m just too hungover and sick and tired to write this, but then I realised, duh, that’d perfect’ (Boddy, 1992 in Peterson, 2007). Pass the self-indulgence and you get to the meat of the ‘essay’. According to Boddy, the Seattle scene was full of ‘geeky-looking guys’ which Peterson photographed in such a way that he visually transformed the scene into this cool imagery that became grunge. As she writes, Peterson got the ‘thrill of the moment’. And he got his flash to thank him for this – ‘I use a heavy duty flash: I always have extra batteries that I can just plop in’ (Peterson, 2007). He also got ‘fucking smacked full on in the head’ (Boddy, 1992 in Peterson, 2007) with a microphone for being too close; an attitude that Boddy rewards as ‘totally bad-ass’.

Personally, I’m all for context but this piece of writing sets a strange tone at the beginning of the book. No wonder: It was originally written for the fanzine Your Flesh #25 in 1992, a fanzine which as its founder Peter Davis, writes:

‘was started as an outlet of self-expression and labor of love among friends who wanted to tout the things they were into in the autumn of 1981. … When my friends and I started Your Flesh back in 1981 not one of us had any idea it would go from 50 black and white copies, hand Xeroxed and stapled, given out for free, and would then eventually mushroom into whopping 20k-plus per-issue runs of perfect bound magazines with worldwide distribution.’

Boddy’s words make sense in a fanzine context. She has become her own ‘narrator of [her] everyday life’, in search for ‘identity and sociability, self-valorization and dialogue’ (Atton, 2002: 63). I have done it myself, with probably the same level of desperation but, with a little more grace. Boddy was after all, as Duncombe (1997: 43) writes ‘trying out new personalities, ideas, and politics’. Yet, what place has such writing got in a book distributed by Powerhouse Classics, a publisher proudly citing as partners the likes of GAP, Nike, Saatchi & Saatchi, Pzifer, and Ralph Lauren… and, of course, Amnesty International?

If fanzine experience was as Duncombe (1997: 179) describes, a ‘refusal to be passive’, ‘the negation of what is’ (p.183) and ‘politics by example’ (p.188), and if grunge meant an alternative music scene, then this book is the embodiment of what happened to both: assimilated by commerce and major corporations.

Now I can only look at the photographs in this book with mixed feelings: admiration for the photographer. I was there too. I saw Sonic Youth, Nirvana and Pear Jam play live in the 1990s. I saw and felt the ‘thrill’ myself but was unable to capture it. So, yes. I feel a lot of admiration. Yet, I feel disdain for the man who put this book together. I look at a photograph showing angry fingers shoved up in the air and equally angry male faces. I look at another photo of this artist backstage giving the finger to the camera, wearing a tee-shirt parading the mighty word ‘destroy’. I can only wonder: But for what purpose in the end?

Book #2: Joy Division by Kevin Cummins (2010)

I am a big fan of Joy Division. I remember putting together and presenting a special radio programme dedicated to Joy Division in the early 1990s. The NME had made my task easy by publishing a free supplement which retraced the trajectory of the band. I fell in love with the photos instantly, especially the ones with the band on the bridge covered with snow, the rehearsal studio and Curtis in his overcoat smoking a cigarette leaning on a (lamp) post, looking straight at the camera.

As soon as I received Cummins’ book, I flicked through it and stared at those photographs I remembered fondly from the NME supplement. But I thought I’d give the book justice and read it as intended, from the beginning.

I started reading Jay McInerney’s foreword.

‘We’re lucky to have Kevin Cummins’ photographs to help us imagine that special moment [Joy Division playing live at the Factory]. … his photographs of Joy Division seem as authentic and unstaged as the band they portray. Long after their subjects have attained iconic status, they seem as fresh as the music we inevitably hear in our minds as we turn these pages’.

(McInerney, 2010: 4)

I couldn’t wait to turn these pages myself.

Then I got to Cummins’ preface. The environment that he paints was as expected: Late 1970s, The Sex Pistols Lesser Free Trade Hall concert – we all saw the movie Twenty Four Hour Party People, didn’t we? Yet, the association of events, thoughts and quotes in those three pages made me uncomfortable.

‘I had to pay for my own film and processing (£10 per roll) and hope that the paper [NME] would use more than one shot to make a profit (£6.50 was the reproduction fee at the time).’

‘Ian and co. were learning how to pose as a band as I was learning how to shoot bands. We each had our own agenda. It wouldn’t have been politic to release shots of Ian smiling.’

‘I left for home around six in the morning. The next thing I remember is waking up to the ringing of the telephone. It was Rob. “That silly cunt’s killed himself”, was all he said.’

(Cummins, 2010: 7-9)

I can only assume that the juxtaposition of profit margin, PR and offensive language was probably meant to force some comic absurdity onto the tragic story of Ian Curtis. Yet, how can Cummins end up with this brutal quote from Rob Gretton (Joy Division’s band manager), without following with some kind of personal comment? I’m aware that I’m ruthlessly slashing through some copy which must have been carefully written and edited, but still… Of course, this is about Manchester and in Manchester the ‘c’ word has different connotations. The use of derision and crude language may be a way of communicating the inexpressible, and grief.  At least Tony Wilson acknowledged who the ‘cunts’ really were: “I think we, we’re the bunch of silly cunts, the fact that we didn’t see it coming. We didn’t. We really didn’t.”

Back to Cummins. Like Peterson, he also writes in the preface about attending the concerts – being there, feeling ‘like you were alive’ (Peterson, 2007) or for Cummins, wanting to enjoy one’s youth – which undoubtedly meant getting drunk (Cummins, 2010: 8).

The ensuing interview between Cummins and Bernard Sumner (Joy Division guitarist and New Order front man) proves a difficult read. I’ve never liked Sumner and I find the conversation a little pontificating. By the end of the interview, I’m not so sure I want to delve into the photographs. But I do it anyway: some snapshots of Ian Curtis’ notebook; some photos of the band onstage; a lot of them featuring Curtis; actually so many photos of Curtis – and I’m not sure all needed to be part of the book; a shot of Ian’s grave; and a image of an arm tattooed with these words: “LOVE WILL TEAR US APART”.

I have to say, while Cummins’ photographs may be the most famous of the band off stage, they are in my opinion the least interesting when it comes to showing Curtis perform, now that I come to think of it. I much prefer the photos of Robert Ellis, Steve Richards, Peter Anderson, Lex Van Rossen, and especially those by Chris Mills and Danny Dupic (who photographed Joy Division at Les Bains Douches in Paris). Perhaps Cummins’ photographs of Joy Division in concert would better suit a fanzine.

I’m puzzled: Is this book a record of Joy Division memorabilia, evidence of Joy Division’s legacy, or Cummin’s private collection of Joy Division snaps? I can’t help but ask myself: How much of Curtis’ own appeal makes Cummins’ photographic style? The commercial demand and the scarcity of photographs was probably a rationale for the book, but somehow I’m not sure this book is really about Joy Division – it’s about someone who knew Joy Division.

Book #3 NIRVANA by Steve Gullick and Stephen Sweet (2001)

I used to like Nirvana a lot, until I got into Mudhoney, Sonic Youth and TAD.

I’ve never liked Everett True. I never liked the fact that not only did he fabricate the story of grunge but he also proclaimed high and loud that he did so. I attended a seminar he gave at Southampton Solent University a couple of years ago in which he addressed popular music journalism students. A great story-teller, the infamous (!) True spent the first 15 minutes of his lecture recounting the story of how he engineered the Kurt and Courtney romance, ‘the Kurtney’. He then went on to boast about the drinking competitions, the messing around and the rubbing of shoulders with celebrities. His key point could have been condensed to: Forget about the truth! Make up your own story – just make it a damned fucking good rock ‘n’ roll story!

So, when I started reading the introduction written by Everett True I was expecting the worst. Yet, I found the reading engaging and funny. Yes, there is a lot of name dropping, goofing around and the inescapable tales of drinking competitions and the circumstantial two fingers at the music industry. But beyond the rock ‘n’ roll trivia, one can really sense Everett True’s close and genuine relationship with Cobain. You get a sense that True really cared for the guy who had contributed to his pay cheque and commercial success.

Reading the rant, you get the picture, you start to understand how the two Steves (Gullick and Sweet) got the shots they got and in a way True gives a few tips on how to take photographs of rock ‘n’ roll stars: be sure you’re introduced as the mate of the band’s front man, get pissed – really pissed, mess around, and have a fucking laugh. This explains how the two Steves got access to Cobain, and in all fairness that is what True did. He gave his acolytes access to the band – not a small feat. Of course, once you are in Kurt’s good books, anything can happen. And judging by the photographs in the book, a lot did happen. In both Gullick and Sweet’s photographs you can hear the roars and the laughs, feel the energy onstage and see the absurdity of the life of a rock ‘n’ roll celebrity.

‘I don’t like most photographs. I don’t understand their purpose. They confuse and bemuse me, and not in a positive way. All my writing ever hoped to attain was a blurred snapshot of an event that in all probability never happened, certainly not in the way my mind recalls it. Photographs don’t even have the grace to be like that. They’re too in focus for my liking. Like it matters. I like the two Steves’ pictures because, unusually, I think that no one else could have taken them. Are you telling me Kurt would have interacted with some fucking hack or soulless chameleon the same way? Fuck off. … Steve and Stephen have soul, and that soul is apparent on every page you flick through here, disinterested in your modern comfort.’

(True in Gullick and Sweet, 2011: 9)

Indeed, these are soulful images and indeed, there is something I don’t like either about photographs which are ‘too in focus’. I personally like my photographs when they are slightly out of focus or even blurred. And for the first time in my life I’ve agreed with something that Everett True has written.

Book #4 Elliott Smith / Autumn deWilde by Autumn deWilde (2007)

Carefully put together, this book is a genuine homage to Elliott Smith through the words of artists and deWilde herself, those who loved him and appreciated his music. Even though you go for the photographs first, their strength comes through as you read the words. Indeed, it is them that give contexts to the photographs, context to what it means being an artist having one’s photograph taken, context to what it means for the photographer to shoot artists.

You get closer to Elliott Smith’s person and deWilde’s photographic approach through interviews of other artists who knew Elliott Smith and whom deWilde photographed for the majority of them. Artists I like a lot: Matthew Caws from Nada Surf, Beck, Chris Walla from The Postal Service, Ben Gibbard from Death Cab For Cutie. The book also features interviews with Smith’s roommate and collaborators. It is this kind of precious book that you handle with great care. Interviews are printed on lightly sepia coloured matt paper and the photographs on brilliant white, as if signifying two separate worlds, yet two worlds that merge to tell and celebrate the story of the great Elliott Smith. The eulogy could go on and on, but I didn’t set out to write a book review and it feels like it is becoming one. There are some great photos in this book. Yet sometimes I cannot help but look at the images of a man who died in sordid circumstances in his prime.

deWilde’s approach to photographing artists is humble and inspirational.

‘I was an obsessed fan who got to take his pictures, who had to grapple with the reality of the real man, which was sometimes amazing and sometimes incredibly disappointing. As a photographer, if you actually have longstanding relationships with artists, then you witness a lot. If they trust you, you get to see a lot of things that perhaps are not really for everybody to know. You have to make that decision as a photographer. Should I show the human or the hero? Am I a photojournalist or am I part of the mythmaking? It’s not easy to decide. I’ve realised that for me personally, it’s a little of both.’

(deWilde, 2007: 55)

She acknowledges that there are moments to be enjoyed and not photographed and moments to enjoy and photograph, but not publish:

‘I wish I’d brought my camera the night that we had a birthday party for Elliott at this bar in Chinatown we used to go to. … I baked him a birthday cake from scratch, and he loved it. We played the jukebox and danced on the little dance floor, which was probably no bigger than six feet square.’

(deWilde, 2007: 56)

‘I did take a few pictures of him and all our friends who came to Arrow’s [deWilde’s daughter] first birthday party. He got all dressed up for it. It was so sweet. He really loved Arrow so much. We had all become really close by this time. This was before he moved into one of the cottages on the hill. Towards the end, which was well before the end end [sic], it was getting ugly. It was a sad time on the hill.’

(deWilde, 2007: 57)

What I find the most interesting in this book is the human relationship between the photographer and the artist. It’s not just the stereotypical notion of the photographer stealing the artist’s soul, but about how the artist’s doubted himself, struggled with success, his trust in deWilde and the hurt he felt, endured and how he ended up hurting those around him, deWilde included. All this narrated through interviews, in a kind of factual manner, yet with a wonderfully honest and poignant result.

The photographer’s choice is down to one’s appreciation, respect and feeling toward the person. The last photo of the book is that of a red balloon flying up in the sky (check out the video ‘Son of Sam’) – a lovely and tender touch which comes throughout the book.

Book #5 The Clash: Before & After photographs by Pennie Smith (1991 edition)

I used to listen to London Calling a lot.

Most photos in Pennie Smith’s book have captions written by The Clash themselves, mostly Joe Strummer and Mick Jones. Interestingly there is one image that Smith took which has no caption. It is the one where she photographed the band being photographed by photographers, Strummer looking like, as Beck said (Hansen and Walla, 2007)… like you had to leave your personality at the door. This image has no caption – it speaks for itself!

All the images are extraordinary: the environment, the US tour, the UK tour, shots taken backstage, onstage, off stage, on street, in bars, in tour buses, in front of cars, in the swimming pool, etc… Looking at the images and reading the captions I can see and nearly hear Joe or Mick call the banters and tell the jokes. I can feel the exhaustion and the energy emanating from the concerts. I’m rediscovering and loving The Clash again through Smith’s photography.

Book #6 Keep your eyes open: FUGAZI by Glen E. Friedman

See my previous post.


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Vedder, E. (2007), ‘I love Charles Peterson…’. In C. Peterson, Touch me I’m sick. New York: powerHouse Classics.


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