Gary James' Interview With
Kurt Cobain Photographer
In November, 1993, five months before Kurt Cobain's death, Jesse Frohman photographed Kurt. What was that like? Jesse Frohman explains.
Q - You were hired by this photographer, Irving Penn, to run his studio because you had a portfolio of platinum prints. What are platinum prints?
A - How'd you get that story?
Q - In my research on your background.
A - Wow! I don't remember telling anybody that. A platinum print is very similar to a silver print in that it uses a metal, but silver is using what is considered a finer metal. It gives you a finer
graduation of finer tone. So it's considered a finer print. The other thing about it is, it has to be handmade because you can't buy it anywhere. It's rare. It's expensive. So, what makes it valuable is its rarity. You have to do it on
watercolor paper and so it's beautiful paper on top of the beautiful material that's used to make it.
Q - If you had no prior photographic experience, how could you even begin to run his studio?
A - Well, that's a very smart question. I actually did have some experience. I worked for a photographer for a year prior, who was a top fashion photographer. Because he worked for some of the same
magazines Irving Penn did, I lived in the same world. Very high end fashion world. So I knew all of the people at Vogue magazine. I knew about the advertising of people. I was as surprised as anybody to have been offered the
job. It's a very interesting story, a funny story. When I first met Penn, he said we'd never work together. Even though he loved my platinum prints that I made when I was at school, I think he thought I was an overly ambitious New
Yorker. He didn't like Americans. He usually worked with northern Europeans that were nurtured working for a master, like in the old days. They had less ambition like Westerners, Americans. Not that they didn't have ambition for great
work, but less ambition to make a lot of quick money like we do over here. He preferred to work with people from that region. So, when he hired me, I actually turned him down. (laughs) I did that because I really didn't think I was
qualified, at first, for what he wanted. I didn't realize he wanted me to take over the studio. So then we talked again. It was just one of those circumstances of fact that I was in the right place at the right time with the right
attitude. After he turned me down, six months later he ended up hiring me because he realized I was the right person for the job. He wanted someone not at the end of their assistant career, but closer to the beginning of their assistant
career that would stay with him for several years. He didn't want someone that was just going to use him for his connections and his name and then leave and make a big career for themselves. He wanted someone that really wanted to study
and be a real partner in crime, as they say.
Q - Okay, so you get this assignment from The Sunday Times in London to photograph Kurt Cobain.
A - It was actually The London Observer, Sunday magazine cover story. Kind of like The New York Times Sunday magazine.
Q - Was Nirvana popular in England?
A - Yes, absolutely. I don't think they ever compared to here (the U.S.), but at that point "In Utero" was about to come out. They were pretty much at the peak of their fame I would say.
Q - You were given twenty minutes to photograph Kurt. Was that per Kurt or his management?
A - By his management. We set it up for like a five hour shoot. That was the agreement. When I showed up at the hotel, the manager met me and said, "We can't go on location." I had set up a big
production with different teams waiting. I knew they would be impatient and with big Rock stars you have to be ready to go. And so, I had a team in the park. I had a team on the street, ready for anything. They just nixed that and said
we had to shoot in the hotel and he had reserved a conference room in the basement of the hotel. Then the other guys, Dave (Grohl) and Kris (Novoselic) showed up after we set up. Kurt didn't show up. So, they went off to grab some
breakfast. They came back a couple of hours later. Still Kurt wasn't there. Eventually Kurt showed up, three hours late. By that time they had to go to rehearsals and they hadn't rehearsed for a while and they were performing that night
at Roseland. We had to squeak it in. The clock was ticking. It wasn't in my favour to argue at the time.
Q - Was Kurt Cobain an easy going guy to photograph or did he do some complaining?
A - He didn't complain at all. I really couldn't ask for an easier subject. He showed up. He was polite. He was stoned out of his mind, so that probably helped. (laughs)
Q - How did you know that?
A - You just knew it. I've been in the business long enough to know it in two seconds. His head was down. He was drooling. (laughs)
Q - I guess that's a giveaway.
A - Yeah. But we talked. We weren't talking like we are now, but we definitely talked. He was very naive. Very easy and very friendly and very silly. People thought he had a very depressed demeanor,
but I didn't see that. It seemed like they had a lot of fun together as a band. When I come out with the book, people will see I have a range of pictures of him and a portrait picture that hasn't been published before of him looking
somewhat serious. But the ones in the book, there are a lot of them joking around. I wouldn't say pranksters, but they certainly liked to have a little fun. That was nice to see and it's a nice side of Kurt that I was able to capture.
Q - When is this book coming out?
A - In November, 2014. It's being published by Thames And Hudson Books. It's a Fine Art book. I hope all the Nirvana fans will buy it, but it's not skewed towards the fan specifically. It doesn't have
anything but my photographs. It does have the initial interview that John Savage did with Kurt Cobain. John Savage is a great music writer. He also wrote the introduction. It has plenty of material for all Nirvana fans. A lot of Nirvana
in it, but it's all from the shoot.
Q - Before the shoot, were you a fan of Kurt Cobain? Did you know a lot about him? Was this a big deal for you?
A - Yes, absolutely. I was still young in my career. At that point I had shot a lot of famous people. So I wasn't intimidated by meeting or shooting anybody famous, but I was still impressed with the
talent. When you hear the music for a quite a period of time, at that point they were certainly one of my favorite bands. In fact, I thought they saved Grunge. I wasn't really into the Hair bands and there really wasn't much out there
besides U2 and a couple of others. So, I love them and Soundgarden and Mudhoney. There was a bunch of bands around at the time that were fantastic. They were pretty much at the top of my list. So yeah, I was a big fan as I was with
James Brown when I met him. It doesn't make it more difficult to shoot someone, it makes me more focused on getting a wonderful picture. More of a challenge I suppose.
Q - You have this one photo of Kurt where he's surrounded by three teenage girls. He's wearing a big hat and sunglasses. How did they know it was Kurt and that he would be there?
A - Because that is when we were 'live' outside of Roseland. I don't know how they know, but fans know this stuff. At some point they were going to be arriving for rehearsal. So, they were already
waiting there. When we arrived there were a whole lot of people outside the stage door entrance. His number one fans I guess.
Q - I only saw one photo of Nirvana, the whole band. In your book, will there be photos of the whole band?
A - Yes, many more. Over the years I tried to limit publishing much of this shoot and that's for several reasons. I think there was probably only two pictures of the band that were published. There
might also be a contact sheet that we made for an exhibition. When I went back to look at the contact sheet, I found a lot of gems that one might not considered a hero picture, but together they make a wonderful collection.
Q - Did you ever think when you were taking the photos you would one day release a book?
A - No. Absolutely not. In fact, until recently I never thought there was a book in it. I think photography books are retrospective of someone's work of a big project you're working on. I never
thought of it. Then one day I was looking at a book by Bert Stern on his shoot with Marilyn (Monroe). That was one shoot also. Of course he had four full days with her with many outfits. He had a much more substantial opportunity of
time and resources to shoot her. Over the years, Kurt's icon status has grown almost exponentially to the point where he's crossed several generations and not just as an individual. There's a lot of young people that don't necessarily
listen to his music that much, but respect that he did his own thing in his own way. He didn't act like an entitled celebrity. Back when I was with them, we took a van. We didn't take a limo. So, kids tune into that, especially in this day and age.
Q - But he was late three hours for your photo shoot.
A - Well, that's not because he was being spoiled, but I guess in a sense that's because he was a drug addict. I guess he was still a Rock star after all. He knew we weren't going anywhere and I don't
think he cared, to be honest. That's part of him doing his own thing. He didn't really care about photo shoots that much. He did as few of them as possible from what I understand. That's what makes my shoot somewhat special in that
regard. There's not like a ton of photo shoots. Many photo shoots, but not like you see today of other people. You know, he's a very interesting character and he's a real icon for a lot of people for different reasons. Kids from
eighteen years old are very much fans of his and they buy all the t-shirts. So, it was a surprise to me and I decided I did have enough material. It is unique. It is special. I really want to give something to the fans, to put it
out on the public record. Otherwise I would be the only one looking at these pictures. To me, it's a very special, very tight volume of work and I love that kind of subject, single subject matter. So, I thought it was something special
once I looked back at the contact sheets.
Q - You're very fortunate to have captured the last Rock star from the U.S. on film. You should be very proud.
A - Yeah. You're always fortunate to have these opportunities and I cherish every one, whether they're as famous as he has become or not. You can't plan your career that way and go after the people
you think will one day attain the status. I think there's only a few people in a lifetime that become like this. I'm sure you can name them on one hand. You've got Elvis. You've got Marilyn. You've got maybe Jim Morrison. You've got
maybe a few others, but there's not a whole lot of them that reach this kind of status. People might argue that, that Kurt's not like that. I would argue that he has and he will. It's a very interesting thing. Just remember the
influence he had on fashion alone. Not that he wanted to, but none the less, when you see fans that are eighteen years old or even younger saying how much they loved Kurt and Nirvana, that's strange, to me it is. I don't see that with
anybody else so far from that generation.
Q - You have to feel sorry for today's kids. They've been short changed. They don't have the talent or excitement they may have seen or experienced in past years.
A - Yeah, well, I suppose. I was too young for the '60s bands. So many wonderful bands all in the same moment. They never looked backwards. You're absolutely right, and now they definitely have to
look backward to find great music, great icons. There's still a lot of good music out there. I'm from a different generation, so I'm a little spoiled; what I grew up with. The older generation is better than the current one. But I
really did think there was something special there and I think the young people are looking toward that time and suggesting that is in fact true.