The Camera Lies: Cobain in Photos

I’ve said it before, I’m not a big fan of genuflecting over endless photos of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana.
It isn’t that I don’t appreciate the work that goes into surfacing shots of rare shows and moments in the life of this band. The kinds of photos I’m referring to are the close ups and front-on shots of Cobain’s face – they leave me cold because they serve a fundamental lie.

The purpose of a photo is to bring an onlooker closer to a moment that has past, whether a piece of their own history or someone else’s. The belief, with photos of Kurt Cobain, seems to be that this is about communion with the soul of the man himself – a way of growing closer to an understanding of him and a sympathy with his experience of the world. I would argue most of it is, instead, about projection by the onlooker and/or photographer and nothing at all to do with Cobain.

The Mona Lisa is a prime example – what was the woman thinking? The answer is that, actually, the image captures nothing. It’s impossible to verify if the famous smile was actually present (think about it, over the period of time the artist took to capture the image did the model truly maintain a single uniform facial expression for ten minutes, thirty minutes, hours on end?) or whether it was simply what the artist wished to portray or represent to us – his invention entirely and one that should make us ask not, “what was the woman thinking?” but “what was the artist thinking?” Likewise, even if we assumed that it was a true representation of the physical expression of the model it brings us no closer to verifying her actual emotional state; most people have a ‘photo face’ that they put on when a camera is pointed at them – what we may be seeing is the model’s false face adopted because of the present of an artist’s brush. And, again, even if we accepted that this face was indeed a direct translation of what she was feeling at that moment in time its a tragic voiding of the complexity of a human being to reduce them down to a single face at a single moment – when that model left the room we don’t know if she looked relieved, if she laughed to see herself in paint, or if she cried over a distraction we can’t see because all we have to go on is what the artist commissioned, paid for and chose to represent. We’re not seeing truth, we’re seeing a selected and mediated (un)reality.

The same goes for photos of Kurt Cobain. I read one photographer stating that one of his famous shots of Cobain staring wide-eyed into the camera, in his opinion, captured a moment of nakedness, vulnerability and honesty…Crap. Studying the sea of Cobain photos what is clearest to me is that this was a man extremely uncomfortable to be brought to a location specifically for people to commit an act upon that had no purpose other than to let people gaze at his face. His facial expression isn’t unhappy, it isn’t sad or soulful – it’s a deliberately blank canvas, it’s a tease even, a case of him saying “look into my eyes, believe what you like, I’m telling you nothing.”

This matches with his distrust of the press and, indeed, most of the trappings of his superstar status – he didn’t enjoy people prying into his life so I believe it’s equally unbelievable to think that a man who famously lied to and/or concealed things from interviewers would simultaneously reveal himself utterly to a cameraman. It leads me to recall the moments on stage when he pursued the TV cameras and forced them to cut out because he waved his penis at them, or the moments when he spat on the lens, or the decision in the Come as You Are video to conceal faces.

Look again at the weight of Cobain images out there and note how often it’s obvious that he’s faking or forcing a smile – the most likely explanation for those moments is that he’s been asked to smile by the cameraman, same as one would be asked at a wedding or other occasion. I’m definitely personally projecting here – I’m constantly told “smile” in photos and I simply can’t react because it’s a demand for a false and fake reaction. What I say is always the same, “talk to me or say something funny – I’ll smile immediately”, the real human contact is needed in order to capture a natural photo, I can’t pretend. In the case of Cobain, there’s the photo of him holding up a can of spam to the camera – caught acting, his smile is natural because he’s not trying to smile, his own focus and desire is to show the can. Similarly, the photo of him sat on the floor exhausted with a hand to his head and apparently crying seems real but was something he got over swiftly. All the most popular Cobain pictures (, the iconic Rolling Stone shots (including the one that graces With the Lights Out), show nothing, say nothing, give no insight other than a refusal to engage with the camera. It’s a dead face and what he’s sharing with ‘us’, the viewers, is no emotion at all thus voiding the supposed purpose of all these pictures floating around the world and gracing magazines, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, Tumblr, whatever.

The threefold purpose of photos, in my opinion, is to verify an occurence, to be appreciated as art in its own right and/or share an experience. The former case is served by photos such as those of Cobain’s trip to hospital in Rome in March 1994, confirming something occured and illustrating its telling and retelling – the picture is nothing on its own without the story. The artistry of the photographer’s art, to me, is served by shots like the frenetic photos from the International Motor Sports Garage that capture the blurred reality of bodies in motion – the Bleach cover likewise is a wonderful combination of anonymity and recognisability – it’s a great identity shot and Sub Pop aligned brand image. The final point is served by the concert shots of Nirvana on stage and, of course, is most meaningful for those who were at a particular occasion – a personal memory. For those who weren’t ever physically present it hints and tantalises at the visual component of the live experience; video may more accurately capture a dynamic occasion but it erases a lot of the imaginative potential of listening to a recording and studying photos then filling the gap with what the mind conjures. People underestimate how much the photographic image is a physical spur to fantasy – frankly I don’t think we like to admit how much of day to day life is about reacting to imagined and potential realities and futures.

It’s why I find ‘selfies’ so tedious. They’re the equivalent of the grating barking of a dog, an endless declaration of “I’m here!” “I’m here!” “I am here!” Humans with so little to do they’re reduced to endless repetition of content-less presence; mannequins. Fake people.


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