Gary James' Interview With Photographer
Kirk Weddle is the photographer who shot the cover photo that appeared on Nirvana's album "Nevermind", and what an album is was. Kirk Weddle spoke with us about his time with Kurt Cobain and Nirvana and that very, very famous album cover.
Q - Kirk, since you're based in Austin, Texas, you must've been to a number of the South By Southwest festivals.
A - I have been to a few of those. They claim that they were the 'live' music capitol of the world and I didn't used to believe that when I first moved here, but maybe I do now.
Q - That's a real bragging right for Austin, isn't it?
A - It is.
Q - 'Live' music seems to be dying every place else.
A - Well, they're trying hard to fuck it up here. I don't know if I'm part of the solution or part of the problem. The city is growing and it used to be a cool little town. Now it's kind of a little city. You build a bunch of condos right next to a bar that has great music and then some of the people that buy those condos go, "Man, we don't like that noise." So, I'm inclined to believe maybe you shouldn't build a condo next to a cool bar.
Q - Unless the bar owner owns the condo.
A - Yeah. Then there's that.
Q - A place for the band to stay.
A - The band's got to crash, absolutely.
Q - Your specialty is underwater photography. I'm guessing you thought you were going to shoot one of the guys in Nirvana swimming underwater. But there's a little baby swimming underwater on the cover of "Nevermind".
A - Yeah.
Q - Whose idea was that?
A - It was somebody at Geffin Records. I wish I could take credit for the concept 'cause it's a really strong concept. A naked baby, can't breath, underwater, going after the almighty dollar on a fishhook. They had come to me. In photography back then you had stock photos, like a library of photos. "You got a little baby underwater?" "No." So, they went away and came back a couple months later and said, "Hey, can you shoot us a little baby?" After that I went and did it.
Q - That little baby belongs to who?
A - That little baby belongs to Rick and Renada Elden. They were some friends of mine. I actually know the kid. Spencer. We don't hang out much, but I'm in contact with him. I like to advise him on a couple of things here and there. He's a cool dude. They were cool people in that it's rare to find people who will let you take a four month old and drop him in the water when they don't know how to swim. They were kind of open to that and so off we went with it.
Q - Now that baby is grown up. Does he understand how famous that album is?
A - Oh, yeah. He's crystal clear on that. He knows that half the planet has taken a look at his Johnson when he was four months old. And so, he's cool with that. I think he would prefer to be capitalizing on it better if he could financially. It'd be nice if he could make a million bucks, but that's kind of a hard thing to pull off.
Q - He wasn't scared when he was dropped in the water, was he?
A - No. He was having a good time. We did it real slow and mellow. I didn't know how it was gonna work. So I practiced with a little rubber doll in the water. Got all ready, then put him in and he just drifted by the camera. I just want bang, bang, bang with my underwater camera, pulled him out. He was cool. We did it again. He started to cry. I'm like, "We're done." The whole thing took five minutes.
Q - How is it that you were selected to do this album cover? Did you have an agent?
A - No. I was promoting myself. I was promoting myself as an underwater guy. At that time there wasn't many times doing underwater and I was promoting myself to people. I was shooting fish and whales and sharks. I was like, "I'm all about shooting people underwater." I had some ads in the Source Book. People found me. They came and so that was that.
Q - Of course, being Nirvana's first album, did you have a chance to hear the music?
A - No, I didn't. I didn't have a clue. I never heard of the band. People say, hey, this band is gonna be good. But I'd heard that a million times. I had no expectations. To me, it was just a sunny afternoon at the pool. That was cool. After I did the album cover, the album just blew up. It went big really fast. So, the band was in town in L.A. where I was living at the time and they gave me a couple of tickets and I went and saw them. That was the first time I heard them 'live'. Then they had me photograph the band underwater too.
Q - What did you think of Kurt Cobain? Did he make an impression on you?
A - Yeah. I thought he was a real sweet guy. I thought he was really nice. Very genuine. I only met him one time. I did a morning shoot with these guys. It's hard for a touring band to do anything in the morning. I thought he was a good sport. He's a trouper, but he wasn't really into being underwater, so it was tough on him.
Q - Were they easy guys to photography?
A - Yeah. They were. Good folks.
Q - You're selling prints of the photos you took?
A - Yeah. I have a gallery. We sell prints. I'll do a show. It's sort of a new thing for me, to be selling prints, but I'm kind of liking it.
Q - When you sell a print, how do you know that someone won't reproduce it and sell it?
A - You don't.
Q - How do you prevent counterfeiting, is I guess what I'm asking.
A - You can't. I've been ripped off so many times, countless times. The thing that pisses me off more than getting ripped off is when someone rips you off and then they put their own photo credit on it. I've had that. It's tough because it's a global economy, right? So you got guys in London selling your picture and it's really hard to stop that without spending an enormous amount of money. So I try to go after the guys with a big wallet. I've never sued anybody. People usually know it's a rip-offed image. Some schmuck made a jigsaw puzzle out of the album cover. It's just not cool. It's not how things should be.
Q - Do you own the rights to the photo?
A - Yeah, I do.
Q - Could you be in the merchandising business?
A - I don't want to be in the merchandising business. I just would like to keep it as it is. I don't want to have Nirvana coffee cups and be the guy selling key chains.
Q - Do you ever find yourself looking back on that day and remembering things you may have forgotten?
A - It's funny to look at it in that it was so long ago and technology was so different and I'd like to do things differently if I did it again. I just looked at a picture the other day of one of my friends who was on the shoot. He's got this cell phone and it's the size of half an encyclopedia. This monstrous phone. I had to rent a phone so the record guys could get a hold of me and I'm under water, so there's no phone there anyway. Everybody else was playing with their cell phone. It was a novelty at the time.
Q - Are you still shooting photos of groups today?
A - I am to some extent. I'm really not a music guy. I'm more of a portrait guy now and a water guy. Underwater is a weird business to be in because you're kind of a one-off guy. Nobody really does underwater over and over again. So, I'm always shooting, burning the bridge and on to the next thing.