Few art exhibits feature photos from just one shoot—but then, few photographers captured Kurt Cobain the way Jesse Frohman did. The Irving Penn-trained photographer’s fateful session with the grunge icon (just months before Cobain’s untimely death) is the subject of a new show at the Morrison Hotel Gallery in New York. Kurt by Jesse Frohman opens today, so we chatted with the photographer to find out just what it was about Cobain that makes him as relevant today as he was in the early ‘90s.
ELLE: It’s been nearly 20 years since your photo session with Nirvana—why exhibit the photos now?
Jesse Frohman: I’ve never considered doing an exhibition on one shoot before, so it wasn’t a mindset I had as a photographer. But I actually like it very much, especially a subject as intriguing as Kurt. It was an interesting way to examine a shoot and to be separated by years from it. And it was one of those rare opportunities to do one session on one subject that could hold its own weight; I’ve had a lot of other people I’ve photographed who are at least as famous as Kurt and I don’t think it would be as interesting.
ELLE: So what is it about Kurt Cobain that still makes him such a fascinating subject?
JF: Over the years he’s developed into an icon in ways he wasn’t when he first died; people reflect back and young people attach themselves to a time that’s interesting to them. Nirvana was a very influential band, he was a very interesting artist, he was a very mysterious person, he was a handsome man…there was a lot of appeal about the man. There’s something about this outfit [he’s wearing in the photos] and the fact that I can’t see his eyes that puts you away from him and at the same time, after all these years, it brings me in. There’s something about this appearance of a person that it’s almost like a Cindy Sherman [photograph], in a way, without being a self-portrait. If he just came in a T-shirt and no glasses on, I don’t think it would be worthy of a show. When it’s all put together, how he’s developed over the years—like a wine fermented—into this incredible icon.
ELLE: Did you have an idea beforehand that the photos would turn out as striking as they did?
JF: That’s the funniest part of the story: My idea was to take them to Central Park and the streets of New York, but when I arrived at the hotel their management met me and said we can’t go outside and he made arrangements for a conference room in the basement of hotel. When you have built-in expectations, especially for a band like Nirvana, and you also have to change gears, it’s very frustrating. And then [Cobain] showed up three hours late! We only had 20 minutes for the whole shoot. So going in, I thought this could be quite boring, because I knew he didn’t have much patience for these photo shoots. I was very upset that I didn’t get a good shoot. But when I saw the film, with the separation of time, I saw that I really had something special there.
ELLE: Were the poses all his, or did you give Cobain some direction?
JF: I did have to mold him a little, like Silly Putty, not into a pose, but into a direction. I often have to be a very directorial [photographer], but in this case I really just let him be…and it worked out. He was stoned—when he walked into the room he asked for a bucket, and when I asked what he wanted it for, he said he was going to puke. I knew from that time it might be a tricky shoot. [But] the reason it was fine was because he actually was coherent in some sense. I don’t know how he did it, but he was actually able to talk to me, and he was present and he did partake. They don’t seem like they go together—being out of it and being in the present—but he really was.
ELLE: Did your fashion background, having worked with Irving Penn, shape your approach to photography?
JF: Absolutely. What I learned from Penn was how to see. You can see something on so many different levels, but I learned a very sophisticated way of seeing when I worked for Penn that I don’t think I would have gotten any other way. It’s a way of seeing details while seeing the whole, knowing when to step in, and knowing when to modify things. Sometimes in a shoot something will present itself and you don’t have to do anything; sometimes you have to work very hard and sometimes people are not very intriguing subjects visually or personality-wise and you have to create something that’s still a truth about them. In this case [with Cobain] it just presented itself as a gift, in a way. Even now, people ask me if I took any pictures [of him] with the glasses off, and I don’t feel frustrated with that because they’ve become his eyes to me. It’s become more iconic because you don’t see his eyes. Everyone who sees these pictures knows it’s him—and he’s famous, but he’s not Obama.