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Photographic Nirvana: Bothell High grad Peterson's photos of Cobain and other rockers captured grunge scene
What do former Bothell High photography teacher Paul Dahlquist and Nirvana's Kurt Cobain have in common? They both played crucial roles in shaping Charles Peterson's career behind the camera lens en route to becoming a photographic force on the grunge-music scene.
Five years after graduating from Bothell in 1982, 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 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 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.")
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. (He's pictured with son, Felix.)
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.
Dahlquist then hammered photography home for Peterson.
"He inspired us in pursuing art. He was truly a hippie — he was night and day from all the other teachers, and he really let his freak flag fly," said Peterson, who took photos for the school newspaper and yearbook and penned a controversial review of a local band for the paper — the Catamount — as well.
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.
"It was in this little room and she was singing into this Elvis-style microphone — like Johnny Rotten did," said Peterson, noting that, with camera at the ready, he nailed some solid shots (one is shown below). "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."
Added Dahlquist, now 82, about Peterson's schooldays: "He had a pretty good idea of what he wanted, and I enjoyed that he was going for it. He was focused and driven and conscientious that he was doing something. When someone picks up the ball and runs with it, I say, 'Thank you for taking the dream farther than anyone imagined it.'"
While attending the University of Washington, Peterson befriended Mark Arm — then singer of Green River and later of Mudhoney — in their dorm cafeteria and soon met Sub Pop co-founder Bruce Pavitt as the small but vital Seattle grunge scene planted its roots.
It was a tight-knit group, Peterson said, with the same 50 or so friends partying before and after gigs — just living in the moment.
"It was all kind of good-natured. Nobody was expecting to get rich or do anything. This was Seattle before there were any sort of high-tech jobs," said Peterson, adding that dabbling in the arts was the way to go. One outlet was to be in a band — taking photos was Peterson's forte.
He 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."
That secret society wouldn't last for long — come 1991, the rest of the world caught on, and the rest is history.
The bands began playing bigger venues and Peterson went along for the ride, including following Pearl Jam to the top with a host of intimate on- and off-stage shots in the book "Pearl Jam: Place/Date" (with fellow photog Lance Mercer).
On Sept. 25, Peterson reunited with Pearl Jam to shoot its concert in front of thousands of fans at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver, BC. Going big is how things have been for 20 years, but Peterson still vividly remembers taking photos of Pearl Jam's Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament during their Green River days in a bathroom in a U District house, he says with a laugh.
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.
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."
Dahlquist says that Peterson's photos are stunning and he was proud to join his former student at one of his exhibitions of grunge photos in Seattle.
"He's got a lot of courage to take those pictures — they are not easy to take because you're getting pushed and bumped," said Dahlquist, still a photographer/artist himself in the Seattle area. "I admire his passion and energy."
Peterson photo: Audience at a U-Men gig in the early 1980s.