The Nirvana Baby twenty years on

The Nirvana Nevermind album cover twenty years on.

John Chapple is a professional photographer based in Los Angeles specializing in celebrity and editorial images. The iconic Nirvana baby image album cover turned 20 this year, and John shot a retrospective image with Spencer Eldon, who was the Nirvana baby, twenty years on. The shot took place in the same pool as that originally used, although, as the interview shows, the original shoot did some things the easier way! Wetpixel caught up with John and asked him about his work and capturing the anniversary image.

To see more of John’s work, please check out his editorial and his landscape photography sites.

Wetpixel: It is a bit of a historic, iconic image isn’t it?

JC: Well certainly the original is!

Wetpixel: And you revisited it 20 years later; it has been 20 years hasn’t it?

JC: It has been 20 years, but I shot it probably two or maybe three years ago (13 October 2008), it hit the press then, but it went really big for the 20th anniversary.

Wetpixel: How did you fetch up in LA John?

JC: I lived in Braunton, North Devon, UK, and had been working for an agency based in Barnstaple called Freemans Press Agency for about 7 years. I saw the job advertised in UK Press Gazette. The ad said come and photograph celebrities in sunny California and I didn’t think much of it. I applied for it and got the job!

Wetpixel: That’s amazing, right place, right time and everything I guess.

JC: Yes totally, I worked in Devon for someone called Tony Freeman and my old boss’s partner, Paul Harris, had taken off to cover the world and then started up an agency in LA. I didn’t know when I applied that the company to which I was applying was owned by him.

Wetpixel: How long ago was that?

JC: That was in 1996.

Wetpixel: Have you been in LA since 1996?

JC: I moved to NY in 2000 and then stayed there 2006, went traveling for 6 months around central America and Mexico and then moved to Australia for six months, with not much work, before moving back to LA in mid 2007.

Wetpixel: You said earlier that your job is photographing celebrities, is that the nature of it? Is this on assignment or for an agency?

JC: No, when I first arrived it was for an agency called Online USA, and it was basically any assignment that came in, mostly news assignments, but also the odd sit outside a celebrities house if it was newsworthy. Since 1998, I have been freelance and currently I just take assignments direct from newspapers and magazines to do whatever they need me to do.

Wetpixel: So this is not solely studio photography then?

JC: No it is editorial mostly, my assignment last week was shooting for Discovery Communication’s Military Channel with a behind-the-scenes feature and publicity portraits of what was going on.

Wetpixel: Quite a varied job, you tend to assume celebrity shooting wouldn’t involve shooting in the field with the military.

JC: Yes, but these are mixed together, because you’ve got a famous host with a gun!

Wetpixel: That’s kind of LA isn’t it?

JC: But then the last job I did for Discovery was for Animal Planet and it was with Neil Patrick Harris (Doogie Howser) for a show called Tanked where two guys from Vegas build exotic fish tanks. And then another assignment for them was doing portraits of Samuel L Jackson for his publicity shots for his show, Curiosity.

Wetpixel: Moving on to the image of the Nirvana Baby twenty years on, I think the first question is who was the Nirvana baby?

JC: He was a kid called Spencer Eldon. It was an assignment for an agency called Splash News believe it or not. They have nothing to do with underwater or water, but are one of the biggest celebrity agencies, mostly paparazzi stuff. I think it was their idea to go and set this up as a feature and they contacted me because I’ve got underwater gear.

Wetpixel: In terms of the original image, do you know where the inspiration for that came from? Who shot that?

JC: It was shot by a photographer called Kirk Weddle, but basically Spencer said that his Dad had worked in the art departments of the movie industry and he was friends with Kirk who had an assignment to go and shoot babies underwater for an album cover for what, I guess, was a relatively unknown band. I think Nevermind was their breakthrough album, maybe not in the scene where they were from in Seattle, but certainly internationally. So his assignment was to photography babies underwater. They had a bunch of kids who all took it in turns going underwater, looked at the negs afterwards and that was the image selected.

Wetpixel: So he was the lucky baby whose image looked best?

JC: I guess so, and he happened to be the guy’s friend which was a bonus.

Wetpixel: Do you know where the idea came from conceptually, is there any record of who thought it up?

JC: No idea, I guess babies underwater is not a new idea in itself. There was that fantastic set, popular at that time anyway, when they are dunking babies underwater, blowing on their faces so they use their gag reflex, hold their breath and take a picture. I don’t know who did it, but I do remember at around that time or before, that there was a company called Waterbabies from London.

Wetpixel: I think they are still going, there is a UK based underwater photographer called Martin Edge that is very involved with it, and one of the Wetpixel staff, Abi Smigel Mullens, shoots underwater baby pictures in San Francisco.

JC: Whether they were the inspiration, and they came along after I don’t know.

Wetpixel: Scroll forward twenty years, how did you get involved?

JC: I got a call from Splash and just asked me if I was available to shoot an assignment. It is a British owned agency and I had been scuba diving with one of the owners, Gary Morgan so he knew that I had the gear. I’m PADI Advanced certified although I haven’t been diving since around 2006. So they called me because I had an underwater housing for an SLR camera with all the kit and that is why I got the assignment.

Wetpixel: Have you done any other underwater work John?

JC: Kind of, there was one other assignment that I have done that was underwater. I pitched this idea and was really really suprised that they went for it. Basically I went to the picture desk at the Times of London and suggested going to feed the sharks in the Bahamas around the theme of the movie Open Water. They went for it and so I got sent to Stuart Cove’s place where we went out with a reporter and I photographed the reporter with these sharks. Fantastic trip! One of those moments when you are kneeling down at the bottom of the ocean being brushed against by Caribbean Reef Sharks thinking “Holy shit I am being paid for this!” Wicked! The story never went in even after all the cost of flying me and a reporter down, hotels, food and expenses.

The article was intended to be for for the cover of the T2 section of the Times and I think that the day before another one of the sections ran a review of the film. Their articel featured a load of shark imagery and they ran it on their cover with an additional two pages inside with more sharks underwater. It was a classic case of one department not speaking to another and they completely spiked our story.

Wetpixel: You got scooped basically!

JC: Yes, by their own paper.

Wetpixel: The original Nirvana baby image was shot on film and I guess the details are lost in history. What were you shooting for your version?

JC: I use Canon and the housing I had was for a Canon 10D which by today’s standards is just rubbish. It’s a paperweight! I think even when I shot the picture it was out of date, there was probably a 20D or 30D out. However it was what I bought my housing for and was what I had at the time. I had an Ikelite housing and strobes.

Wetpixel: It’s all about what you have and what you do with it.

JC: Exactly!

Wetpixel: Many of the comments about the shot relate to Spencer leaving his shorts on for this version, I guess we are all quite glad about that. How did he feel twenty years on? What does he do now?

JC: Yes, I was glad about the shorts. I think he works for a company producing art T shirts.

Wetpixel: It is fascinating to find out what the Nirvana baby grew up into I guess. The whole concept of the nowhere generation, it is cool to find out where they ended up.

JC: A difference with the original shot, there was the dollar bill hanging down, so I had to recreate it and I went out to the sports store and found a lead weighted hook, got some line and then had a reporter hanging over the edge of the pool dangling this in front of the camera. So it was difficult to get all this in one shot. To get Spencer to be in the right spot, me to be in the right spot and to have the dollar bill in it. I find out when we’ve finished that the original image had the dollar superimposed afterwards. It wasn’t actually there when the kid was in the pool. I’m like “Oh really!”

Wetpixel: I wonder how they did that, maybe an early version of Photoshop. If that was twenty years ago, digital manipulation was still fairly cutting edge.

JC: It was there I think, but very early.

Wetpixel: So you did it the hard way?

JC: Yes totally! And didn’t find out it was the hard way until we had finished. Twenty years on and look how technology changes!

One other thing, during the shoot, there was a problem and the strobes wouldn’t fire. So it was shot on ambient light. It was also shot in the same pool that the original was shot in. The Rosebowl in Pasadena was the original pool and so we had to reserve it and pay for it to shoot there.

Wetpixel: That’s a great piece of symbolism, same place, same model twenty years on.

JC: There is a piece of video on CNN where they interview Spencer and ask him if he got paid or received any royalties and he doesn’t. He makes a comment, if he got money, its is kind of representing what the album cover is, this baby trying to chase the dollar, which he didn’t get any royalties for. If he goes to court to seek money (he never signed any releases) it just backs up the message the image is trying to put across.