AS YOU ARE, AS YOU WERE, AS I WANT YOU TO BE
Talking with Famed Kurt Cobain Photographer JESSE FROHMAN
By Jillian Mercado
45 years old. Reaching that age is no easy feat for anyone in the music business. And that is what Kurt Cobain would have been this year. But the time would prove too much for him to handle. All the chaos of ’94 would come to a head by then. But before it did, intimate moments in his life were captured, moments rarely seen in the life of musicians as enigmatic as him. When these historic images came to the forefront, they made history in news articles, on clothing, and on all the reissues that would be released following his passing.
These poignant images are now on display at the Morrison Hotel Gallery, images Jesse Frohman captured during the time he spent with Nirvana. The band was led by the simultaneously bold and shy Kurt Cobain, who was 26 years old at the time. Twenty-one hit singles, three generation-defining albums, and a thousand imitators later, on the 18th anniversary of his passing, we take a look back on the man who knew his generation firsthand, to a time when rock music was rock history in the making, and a photo would go on to be known as something more.
Jillian Mercado: How was this shoot planned? How did it come about?
Jesse Frohman: I was commissioned by the London Observer Sunday Magazine to do a cover shoot of Nirvana.
JM: What was the mood that day? What frame of mind were you in? And what frame of mind was the band in?
JF: Well I was excited because I was a fan of Nirvana, and it was a cover story which is always an honor. Dave and Krist were very nice and not at all like diva rock stars; in fact, they were just the opposite and very humble. Kurt showed up three hours late, and by that time I was very concerned about how much time we had left to shoot, but fortunately he was very nice and cooperative and made the mood quite pleasant considering the circumstances.
JM: What did you think of the band before you met them? And what ideas did this shoot change for you about them?
JF: I knew that they did not care much for the media hype, and shooting them only confirmed that, even though they were very nice to work with. They were a famous band by then, but they were not rock gods like The Beatles were in their day, so it was a very normal shoot of a band, as normal as any shoot of a band can be.
JM: This shoot was just a year before Kurt passed away–did he ever get to see the photos, and if so, what did he think? What does the rest of the band think? Have you heard feedback from them?
JF: I have no idea if he ever saw these pictures, but I imagine he would have since it was a big cover story of a good magazine. I have never spoken to Dave or Krist about the shoot since that day.
JM: I know Irving Penn was a mentor of yours. Did he offer any tips, or give any advice on your photography? And if so, how would you say it shaped what you do today?
JF: I remember the day I told Penn I was quitting and he said to me, “Go out and be poor.” I told him that I was already poor and we had a good laugh, but what he meant was to stay true to my work and don’t compromise for money. Great advice if you can afford it. I treasure my whole experience of working for Penn. He was a great artist, and I learned things I could not have learned anywhere else.
JM: What’s been the most rewarding moment of your photography career?
JF: That’s a tall question since I’ve had so many memorable moments. Certainly being hired by Irving Penn, who is considered to be one the most influential photographers in history, and also getting one of my first commissioned jobs by the great creative director Fabien Baron. Getting to shoot James Brown was another great moment since I was a huge fan.
JM: Are there any dream people you aspire to shoot that you haven’t yet?
JF: I have a list longer than the space you have for it, but I like to go where my life and my career take me, and I try to enjoy the journey and not worry so much about the list. But if I had to say one person I would choose the Dalai Lama–his writings and words have had the most profound influence on me in my life.
While earning a degree in economics at the University of Michigan, Jesse Frohman picked up a camera and never put it down. When he returned to New York, he had no formal training or experience, but he did have a portfolio of platinum prints, which caught the interest of legendary photographer Irving Penn, who hired Jesse to manage his studio. It was an incomparable apprenticeship. To the techniques and aesthetics he learned from Penn, Jesse added his own sensibilities of strength, dignity and quiet energy, all of which are evident in his pictures. Jesse has photographed countless celebrities and still lifes. In addition to his work for magazines, advertising, and recording companies, he has been commissioned to create two award-winning books. His work is also in many private collections. Jesse now lives and works in New York
Written by Jillian Mercado
Edited by Jonathan Metzelaar
Photography by Coco Alexander
Design by Marie Havens
Jesse Frohman, 2012, Photography by Coco Alexander