Sunday, October 16, 2011

Charles Peterson: Bringing the Seattle sound to life behind his camera lens

Some Charles Peterson photo action from a pair of Sub Pop releases.

By Andy

While growing up in the Los Angeles area, I attended many raucous punk gigs in the early to mid-1980s and always kept an eye on the work of local photographers like Ed Colver, Glen E. Friedman, Ann Summa and the Flipside and Ink Disease crews, among others.

Colver unleashed hundreds of killer shots, including an astounding one of a stage diver backflipping through the air over the crowd on the back of Wasted Youth's "Reagan's In" album. Friedman always came through with some of the best and rowdiest Black Flag and Minor Threat shots, and his "My Rules" photozine back then was essential perusing. And Summa is responsible for one of the most intense shots of the Bad Brains' HR and Henry Rollins raging together while sharing vocals at a BB's gig while my brother, Ed, intently watches from stage right.

Up here in Seattle around that time, Charles Peterson was cutting his teeth with his camera at gigs. After taking some subpar shots of Seattle power-pop band the Heats at the Mural Amphitheater and at some other gigs, Peterson's friend, Verna, invited him along to watch her band practice one day in the city of Bothell (about 10 miles outside of Seattle.)

"It was in this little room and she was singing into this Elvis-style microphone -- like Johnny Rotten did," said 1982 Bothell High grad Peterson, noting that, with camera at the ready, he nailed some solid shots. "I went, 'This is what it's all about!' You've gotta be right by the band, and be very intimate to get those kinds of photos."

In 1987, Peterson published his first shot for Sub Pop Records on Green River's "Dry As a Bone" record. One of his most famous pictures of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain a few years later -- surfing the crowd with ripped jeans and picking his guitar -- is blown up huge to adorn a wall at the Experience Music Project (EMP) in Seattle.

"It's really fun -- and it's flattering," Peterson said of the attention he's garnered. "My dream was always to be a fine-art photographer, like Robert Frank (and others), and to make a book and put it on the shelf alongside theirs. And I've done that -- it doesn't get much better than that." (He's published several books of his rock photos, including "Screaming Life" and "Touch Me, I'm Sick.")

Soundgarden, Nirvana, Tad and L7 record pics by way of Peterson. (Cat collection, here and above)

Peterson is known for his action-packed, sometimes partially blurred black-and-white shots taken with a wide-angle lens. Now age 47, his work is in the spotlight as Nirvana's ultra-breakout album "Nevermind" notched its 20th anniversary Sept. 24.

As a youngster, Peterson first became fascinated with photography when he watched his uncle develop film and peruse the prints in the laundry room of his grandparents' Bothell home. While at Bothell High, Peterson took photos for the school newspaper and yearbook and penned a controversial review of local band, The Fags, for the paper -- the Catamount -- as well.

Later, the University of Washington grad documented the Seattle scene by unleashing his photos of Mudhoney, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Tad and more long-haired, guitar-slinging wild men to the music world via Sub Pop releases.

However, the crowd played an important role in making those photos scream, captivate the viewer, give the music an all-inclusive feel.

"The Seattle audiences were entertaining. I didn't want to just get a head shot of the lead singer. I wanted to get the experience, make you actually feel like you're there," Peterson said of either shooting the crowd alone or while raging with the band near the stage.

The way he composed his photos at certain angles made it seem like there were more people at the gigs than actually walked through the door: "I'd take the photo and make it seem like it was larger than life when it probably was 50 of your drunken friends going crazy.

"I like the composition part of shooting," he continued. "The way my eyes and brain work together -- I'm constantly composing with or without a camera."

There were some nights, however, when Peterson didn't take his camera to Nirvana gigs, which could have produced more pictures for fans to dig on and net him some more income, he laughed.

But sometimes other photographers are there to get the job done, like the Colvers, Friedmans and Summas of the world. Like many of us music fans, Pennie Smith's classic shot of Clash bassist Paul Simonon smashing his bass into the stage on the cover of the band's legendary "London Calling" double album is etched in our minds. Same goes for Peterson -- she's one of his favorite rock photographers along with Bob Gruen and Jim Marshall.

Peterson doesn't photograph many bands nowadays, but makes his living off of licensing his classic photos, his books (including one on breakdancing called "Cypher") and by taking on commercial shoots with Bing, Adobe, Dr. Martens and more. He lives in Seattle with his wife and 2 1/2-year-old son.

When reacting to seeing his Cobain photo dominating an area at the EMP, he said, "It's somewhat similar to the trajectory a lot of the bands have taken."

In the case of Pearl Jam, its members Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard graduated from playing small gigs and being photographed in a bathroom while with Green River, to headlining massive concerts worldwide. Peterson reunited with the band last month to photograph its concert in Vancouver, BC.

Cobain, who committed suicide in 1994, comes up in the conversation again when Peterson discusses some of his favorite photos, taken in the late '80s at Raji's in Hollywood. At the close of Nirvana's set on a twin-bill with Tad, Cobain dove backwards into Chad Channing's drum kit while Peterson fired away with his motor drive attached to the camera.

"It was one of those evenings when everything clicked -- I got so many pictures of both bands that night," he said. "The band was on, I was on... That picture of Kurt has become so (iconic) because it really represented what they were about, what grunge was about."

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