It’s twenty years since the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind — the album that knocked Michael Jackson’s Dangerous from number one and pushed alternative music into the spotlight. Let’s take a look at the iconic album cover.
Initially, the band had wanted an album cover featuring an underwater birth; an idea originally conceived when Kurt was watching a TV show about live births with fellow bandmate Dave Grohl. The label refused to follow through with this idea, stating that all the images they had suggested were too graphic. The concept then moved to just having a baby underwater – an idea that would cost the band $7,500 per annum for the use of a stock image. This is where photographer Kirk Weddle was hired, being an underwater photography expert. Says Weddle, “I’d been a diver forever… That’s how my specialty came about… I tried to promote myself as an underwater studio.” Plus, he only charged them $1000 for the shoot.
The photoshoot took place at Rose Bowl Aquatic Centre in Pasadena, California. The baby featured in the infamous photograph is Spencer Elden, the son of one of Weddle’s friends. Spencer receives no royalties for the use of his picture, since his parents were simply doing Weddle a favour by letting him photograph their baby.
It took Weddle about fifteen minutes and half a roll of film to capture the iconic image. He was unsure about using the image though, due to the clear shot of the baby’s penis. He later went along to a baby swimming lesson where he paid participating parents $50 to shoot their babies. “This one girl was like a machine,” says Weddle, “couldn’t walk, couldn’t talk, but she could motor around underwater.”
When he approached the label with his photos, he provided the image of Spencer, along with another of the female baby that he had photographed at the swimming lesson. The image of Spencer was chosen over the girl. Geffen (the label), concerned that the photo of Spencer may cause offense, produced a version with the penis edited out, but Cobain would not compromise on this issue. To this day, the identity of the girl who was almost “the Nirvana baby” is unknown.
The dollar bill on the fish hook, which is often thought to be a dig at the label and music industry, was added in later. Weddle likes the addition and says that it makes the photo.
Later on, Weddle also shot some underwater band photos, which proved more difficult than shooting the cover as Kurt Cobain disappeared for two hours, and upon returning, promptly fell asleep on the floor. Here are a couple of the photos from his photo-shoot with the band: