Nirvana underwater: Rarely-seen photos of Kurt Cobain & Co. capture a moment inrock history
Chances are you probably don’t recognize the name, Kirk Weddle, but if you are under the age of 40, you probably own his most famous frame of film.
Though he and his wife now call Austin home, Weddle grew up as the son of an actor based in L.A. Precisely 20 years ago, a naïve Weddle was hired as an Angeleno photographer to shoot the cover for Nirvana’s Nevermind album. Weddle, an advertising photographer with a knack for underwater shooting, had never even heard of Kurt Cobain and his buzzworthy band. Unbeknownst to Weddle, a snapshot of his friends’ baby would soon become one of the most recognizable images in rock history.
Weddle is a straight shooter. No pun intended. When asked why he decided to pursue a career in photography, it was no surprise that he wittily retorted with, “I thought photography would be an easy way to make a living and meet women." Ironic, coming from a guy who wears a bunny suit in his professional headshot. But that’s just how Kirk rolls.
[Nirvana] initially wanted the cover to be a photo of an underwater birth, but with strong resistance from their label, they eventually settled on a baby swimming in a pool.
Weddle’s sense of humor and demeanor make it hard to believe that in the past, he donned camouflage rather than his favored bunny suit. However, due to suffering an injury while serving in the military, Weddle was rewarded with a full scholarship to the college of his choice. On a whim, he applied to the Art Center of Design in Pasadena, Calif., and was accepted.
After graduation, Weddle decided to take a unique approach to commercial photography. “I’d been a diver forever and I was actually fired off of a job once and they said, 'Don’t ever bring this guy back unless it’s an underwater shot.' That’s how my specialty came about. From that point on, I tried to promote myself as an underwater studio.” Weddle’s efforts paid off. DGC/Geffen Records spotted his portfolio and hired him to shoot the album cover of their newly signed band, Nirvana.
The band initially wanted the cover to be a photo of an underwater birth, but with strong resistance from their label, they eventually settled on a baby swimming in a pool. The subject was Spencer Elden, the infant of Weddle’s friends. Fifteen minutes into the shoot and half a roll of film later, Weddle had captured the iconic cover.
It was a tough day, cloudy, and Kurt was nowhere to be found. Two hours go by and he’s not around. When he finally shows up, he just lies down and sleeps for a couple hours. Flat on the pavement.
However, when it came time to shooting the band, things did not go so smoothly. For one thing, Kurt Cobian, the lead singer for Nirvana, was absent at call time.
“After shooting the album cover, we stupidly shot the band at 10 in the morning while they were on tour," he says. "You don’t really want to shoot a band in the morning. It was a tough day, cloudy, and Kurt was nowhere to be found. Two hours go by and he’s not around. When he finally shows up, he just lies down and sleeps for a couple hours. Flat on the pavement. We put a bathrobe on him and took some pictures.”
Three years later, Cobain would unfortunately take his own life and no one was more surprised than Weddle. Yet, the troubled musician left behind a legacy. Two decades after its release, Nevermind is still regarded as one of the best rock albums of all time and Weddle’s thumbprint is on it.
“I definitely think it’s changed my career for the better. The photo is an icon. I got a ton of exposure, but a lot of it for me was just luck. You get this kid at the perfect moment, with a great concept, and it was simply executed. And then you have a band that just exploded."
Kirk pauses and adds candidly, “If I had shot this photo of a band that went nowhere, you wouldn’t be talking to me right now.”
Weddle continues to produce photography, underwater and on land. His Nirvana prints can be purchased through Rock Paper Photo in New York City.