Home Music Music Lists

Jesse Frohman on Photographing Kurt Cobain

Photographer looks back on shoot with the Nirvana singer months before his death

kurt cobain, nirvana

Photograph ©Jesse Frohman/Courtesy of The Morrison Hotel Gallery

"Kurt" by Jesse Frohman, an exhibition of photographs of the late Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, will open at the Morrison Hotel Gallery in Manhattan on April 5th, the 18th anniversary of the rocker's death. Frohman's images, which were shot over one day in November 1993 in New York, depict Cobain and his band at the height of their success while on tour in support of In Utero and only months before the songwriter took his own life at the age of 27.

"It was the only time I photographed him and Nirvana, and the assignment originally was to do a cover story for the Sunday Observer," Frohman tells Rolling Stone. "We had set up for a shoot in New York when they were going to perform at Roseland Ballroom, so we had the whole day to shoot. That was the original assignment, but of course, things didn't turn out the way we planned. Often times with shoots of musicians or celebrities, they don't – so even though I prepared for that, it pretty much went off-track pretty quickly."

kurt cobain, nirvana

Photograph ©Jesse Frohman/Courtesy of The Morrison Hotel Gallery

A Rough Start

"It was a very unique shoot," Frohman recalls. "Kurt showed up three hours late to the shoot, and the shoot was in his hotel. We originally planned for the shoot to take place outside in Central Park. I had a van all packed up with equipment and when we arrived, we met the manager in the lobby, and he said, 'We have to shoot in the hotel.' He arranged for a conference room in the basement of the hotel for us, and he said, 'Go check it out,' and unfortunately didn't offer any other options if it didn't work out. We didn't have that much room. We waited for Kurt, and Dave [Grohl] and Krist [Novoselic] came down, and there was no Kurt. And they left, and they came back two hours later, there was no Kurt."

kurt cobain, nirvana

Photograph ©Jesse Frohman/Courtesy of The Morrison Hotel Gallery

Kurt Appears

"Eventually, at least three hours later than originally scheduled, Kurt came down," says Frohman. "He was very quiet and he was wearing these white Jackie O glasses with his chin down to his chest, and he asked for a bucket. And I said, 'Sure, we have a bucket. What do you need a bucket for?' And he said, ''Cause I think I'm gonna puke.' And that was my introduction to Kurt."

kurt cobain, nirvana

Photograph ©Jesse Frohman/Courtesy of The Morrison Hotel Gallery

Hiding Behind His Shades

"Kurt was very nice and agreeable, and at the same time I had to mold him like Silly Putty," Frohman recalls. "You know, he was very stoned, yet he was coherent on some level and gone on another level. I had met people like that before, but this was unique because I was shooting someone with these glasses on. He wouldn't take the glasses off, so I couldn't really make eye contact easily."

kurt cobain, nirvana

Photograph ©Jesse Frohman/Courtesy of The Morrison Hotel Gallery

Winging It

"The whole shoot was improvised, in the sense that I had no plans to shoot in a studio environment," says Frohman. "We managed okay on that level, and I did have a backdrop, but the timing was off. When I thought of five hours [while] planning the shoot, I thought I had time to plan different locations and a variety of pictures. I even asked to shoot in his hotel room, and the manager said, 'Eh, no way. That can't happen.'"

kurt cobain, nirvana

Photograph ©Jesse Frohman/Courtesy of The Morrison Hotel Gallery

The Real Kurt

"We got these really interesting pictures because he was aware of what he was looking like, and he was unaware of how he was, because he was pretty out of it," says Frohman. "He started spitting water, and I don't think he was doing it to be funny – I think that was just his nature."

kurt cobain, nirvana

Photograph ©Jesse Frohman/Courtesy of The Morrison Hotel Gallery

Always the Anti-Hero

"Kurt was an anti-hero and he didn't like to be pretty, and he didn't want to be glorified, and he didn't want to be treated like the way celebrities want to be treated, and it's what endeared him to a lot of fans," muses Frohman. "At the same time, it was challenging to shoot him because he would pay attention, then he wouldn't pay attention, you know? It was like shooting a dog."

kurt cobain, nirvana

Photograph ©Jesse Frohman/Courtesy of The Morrison Hotel Gallery

Poetry in Motion

"I have a lot of outtakes that I don't even show that are maybe not handsome pictures of a person, but they're very interesting," Frohman says. "The shoot has become, to me, a portrait in all the pictures rather than in one outstanding, iconic photograph. So, to me, it's almost like a film strip. You could look at all the different pictures and you could see a way a person moves and expresses himself with [sun]glasses on, where you can't make eye contact, which is one of the most telling features of a person."

kurt cobain, nirvana

Photograph ©Jesse Frohman/Courtesy of The Morrison Hotel Gallery

The Media Still Sucks

"In the time that I had with him before we went over to Roseland, he seemed very removed and almost had this disdainful quality for the press, and I guess I represented the press," says Frohman. "He was nice to me, but by showing up late and, you know, not really caring, I just had a feeling that he was at odds with his media image. I knew that from reading other articles and all that, so it wasn't a real surprise to me that he wasn't going to be like a lot of other celebrities. I enjoyed that about him, actually."

kurt cobain, nirvana

Photograph ©Jesse Frohman/Courtesy of The Morrison Hotel Gallery

Relaxed with Fans

"When we got to Roseland, he was really nice and engaging with his fans," Frohman remembers. "Now, he was stoned out of his mind. He wasn't very talkative but he was really polite, willing to sign all the autographs and all that. I was very happy to see that, because that's one thing you always want to see. I really enjoyed those moments, so I figured, let's do a picture – sort of like a fan picture, a snapshot, as if I was shooting for the kids with their camera."

kurt cobain, nirvana

Photograph ©Jesse Frohman/Courtesy of The Morrison Hotel Gallery

Stage Rules

"[The live photos in the series] are more simplistic," Frohman explains. "I think you're trying to capture a moment in a performance, and it's more about getting lighting, an angle, a good expression. I think it's also a challenge to do those. I like it as if you're watching an artist in his studio. You're seeing him in his moment, in his element, and so I always find those pictures fascinating."

kurt cobain, nirvana

Photograph ©Jesse Frohman/Courtesy of The Morrison Hotel Gallery

Cobain at His Canvas

"I certainly like the performance pictures because, like an artist painting, you really see him doing his thing," says Frohman. "I do think [as an photographer] you are removed from the subject, and I find them less challenging. Maybe technically they could be more challenging, getting a good light on him, and you can't control the background and perspective a lot of the times. They are what they are, and yet I think they're really fascinating to look at."

kurt cobain, nirvana

Photograph ©Jesse Frohman/Courtesy of The Morrison Hotel Gallery

A Different Approach

"I've seen many great pictures of [Cobain]," Frohman notes. "There are some other photographers that have done wonderful portraits of him. You know, he's a handsome man, he's got his eyes full of expression. Those pictures are different, and they're interesting. But to me, there's something about these pictures that transcend connecting to a person."

kurt cobain, nirvana

Photograph ©Jesse Frohman/Courtesy of The Morrison Hotel Gallery

Windows to the Soul

"This shot with his eyes is like seeing the wizard behind the curtain, and I don't know if you want to see that," says Frohman. "But to me, those glasses become his eyes. I can't explain it. After he died, many magazines, including Rolling Stone, asked me for the shoot so they could consider it for a cover or shot inside the magazine. I never got one cover story because he's wearing the glasses and everybody wanted eye contact for their cover images. I wish I got his glasses off, but to me now, I think there's something about this shoot that you don't need to see his eyes."