The Most Popular Kurt Cobain Photos

This is a light-hearted inquiry for a Sunday AM. I was wondering what people felt was their favourite Kurt Cobain/Nirvana photo. I decided to use Twitter and Facebook as sample groups; I studied 377 profiles on the former, 275 on the latter — that seemed a more than ample number. I was expecting more of the ‘Vandalism: Beautiful as Rock in a Cop’s Face’ (credit for that line goes to The Feederz a band I recommend), a few of the Charles Peterson shots from the Sept 1990 show at the Motor Sports International Garage, the Niels Van Iperen shots from Nov 1991…

My immediate realization was that the desire to differentiate and distinguish their pages meant people were using an astounding variety of photos. It was clear that, even when paying homage and pledging allegiance to the memory of Nirvana, the desire to stand out as an individual drove even something so simple as the chosen profile picture.

What really stood out is that the period of photos used most rarely were those from the 1992 spell of Kurt with short hair when (frankly) he looked extremely ill indeed. Perhaps that explained the scarcity of the Martyn Goodacre Oct 1990 NME shot — you know the one, eye make-up, saddest expression in the world, big open eyes straight to camera. There seemed to be a desire to avoid the mournful images in favour of photos that still possessed either stolid handsomeness or a certain dreamy-eyed wistfulness.

So, the number one and number two respectively were:

They’re both from a late 1993 shoot with Mark Seliger for Rolling Stone. Variations on both of them abound in the sample group and I counted them as one entry. I was surprised how often the actual Rolling Stone magazine cover itself was used — this exact shot. There was genuinely a greater uniformity among non-English language sites. It occurred to me that outside of the U.S./U.K. markets that Rolling Stone is still one of the key music magazines distributed — when I’ve been abroad it’s a near guaranteed presence on the news-stands. This familiarity maybe accounts for how common it is. It also seems likely that the photos people selected were bonded to their own early memories of the band; hence the preponderance of these shots and of, as we’ll see, MTV photos. This isn’t to underestimate the fact that the Seliger photos captured Kurt at possibly a peak of sheer beauty; this is a very photogenic young man:

This is the rest of the top ten. I was surprised by the prevalence of the With the Lights Out cover but, again, access and familiarity seem to be crucial factors in the popularity of a photo; this was a rare Nirvana release in the sense of having a very clear photo of the band on the cover, plus as the last highly-anticipated, genuinely exciting Nirvana release it formed the high point of many people’s musical-engagement with the band.

What was far rarer were casual early or amateur photos. People seem to prefer the more formal photo shoots presumably for the crispness of the images. Likewise, I didn’t see one photo of Kurt with Frances Bean anywhere in the 600+ sample. The degree to which the Nirvana cult is actually a Kurt Cobain cult was very clear — even band photos were a rarity, let alone letting Courtney into a shot. The preference was also for shots from after Nirvana achieved fame; the oldest photos here are precisely Oct-Nov 1991; right after Nevermind. Again, I’m simply guessing that it’s a combination of being the closest match to people’s memories, the best quality, the greatest access. To be fair, Kurt Cobain was certainly a man who ‘grew into one’s looks’; his gawky teenhood and early twenties aren’t the hallowed images of a latter-day saint.

I’m unsure of where the photo at top left comes from, the next (plus the one at the end of top row) are from a Michael Lavine shoot for Sassy magazine, the next is from MTV’s Live and Loud performance. On the bottom row, A.J. Barratt’s shoot for NME in November 1991; MTV Unplugged in New York; the Hilversum radio session in November 1991.

A final comment would be to note the focus on eyes open to camera photos. It seems a bolt of the blindingly obvious to say one doesn’t remember people through photos of their forearms or their ankles. As human beings we’re conditioned to seek out connection, emotion, a sense of a person — photos as memorials are precisely that. If it was simply an attempt to preserve the physical person then a photo of any part of their body would be equally satisfactory. The simple fact that in a sample of over 600 chosen photos it was always the face to which people felt the connection indicates that it’s that attempt to meet the personality, the mind and soul that drives people when handling and observing photos.

In Kurt Cobain’s case, people didn’t choose smiles but they didn’t choose unhappiness. What was chosen was the inscrutable expressions, the apparent openness found in the eyes balanced against the closed mouth. It’s far rarer to find photos of Kurt smiling in general but it seems the ‘unknowingness’ of these images appealed — the man we’ll never know deeper.


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