“I don’t think I knew how to see before I met him,” says acclaimed photographer Jesse Frohman about legendary photographer Irving Penn. “[He taught me how] to see a successful picture; when the picture’s finished; what makes a strong photograph – whether it’s a simple flower, a landscape, a model, or a portrait of a musician.” Frohman was in college working towards an economics degree when he began dabbling with photography. With no formal training and only a portfolio of platinum prints, he still managed to capture Penn’s interest, who hired Frohman as an apprentice. Working closely under Penn, Frohman better developed his vision as an artist, and has gone on to shoot countless fashion editorials, still lifes, and celebrities, including James Brown, Diane Von Furstenburg, and the legendary Kurt Cobain. As tribute to the 20th anniversary of the famed Nirvana rocker’s death, Frohman recently released a photo book titled KURT COBAIN: The Last Session (Thames & Hudson).
The Last Session features published and unpublished photographs of Nirvana that Frohman took in 1993, when he was commissioned by the London Observer’s Sunday magazine to photograph the band. The shoot and interview was done in 1993, making it the last formal photo shoot the band did together, before Cobain committed suicide in ’94. In addition to the photographs, the book also features commentary from pop iconoclasts Jon Savage (England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock) and Glenn O’ Brien (author of books on style and contributor to monographs on Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and other artists).
Check out The Untitled Magazine’s exclusive interview with Jesse Frohman below.
Ariana Atwater: Why Kurt Cobain as a subject, and for you personally?
Jesse Frohman: As a subject, I was commissioned to do the shoot of Nirvana. As a subject, I was interested in a lot of different things at the time. I was doing portraits of musicians, actor, writers, and architects. I was doing fashion advertising. This was one aspect of what I do and did at that time. Nirvana was a great band. I think they saved rock for me (laughs). I was very excited when I got the call to shoot them. And why the book? Well after 20 years, I saw the growth in the icon status of Kurt and I couldn’t believe that it was 20 years already after he died. I thought it was time for me, in the way that I could, to celebrate Kurt’s life and this was the right time to do it.
AA: What did Irving Penn teach you about photography and how did you apply that to this book?
JF: Well I can’t say that in one short conversation because Penn was the master. He taught me different things. About the book, that’s something else. But about photography, he taught me how to see. I don’t think I knew how to see before I met him. [He taught me how] to see a successful picture; when the picture’s finished; what makes a strong photograph – whether it’s a simple flower, a landscape, a model, or a portrait of a musician. That meant everything because you can’t read about that and most people don’t know how to teach that; I certainly think that you have to have the ability to find that within yourself. Even Penn can’t teach you that. He gave me so much inspiration to search for the truth in doing portraits. Because in the best portraits there’s always a truth about the person – not necessarily a complete 360 degree view of their personality because it’s only a two-dimensional art form but certainly a truth about the person. And I strive to get that when I do portraits. If I come close to getting the truth about the person then I build a successful portrait and that, I learned from Penn.
AA: What was the chemistry between you and Cobain during the shoot?
JF: It was good. We had a natural rapport considering the short time we had together – in the studio we only had 30 minutes. I didn’t have time to sit and discuss clothing or change of lighting or the background or any environment. I had to get right to it. I had a very limited opportunity to make any changes, so if I hadn’t had a rapport with him, it would’ve taken longer to warm up. And when I say warm up, sometimes you have to give yourself time in order to get someone to relax and trust you. Because we had instant rapport, it worked. Otherwise I could’ve gotten much less from this shoot than I did. We got along great. We didn’t have time to get to know each other very well (laughs) but that’s ok. Sometimes a successful shoot is not about becoming friends; it’s about getting a good picture. It’s about working with the situation, the person, the moment. I tried to have some conversation before we started, but literally we started shooting within a few minutes.
AA: Back to what you said about [Nirvana] saving rock, what do you think is the difference between shooting rock stars then and now?
JF: I don’t like to generalize about that. I think there are great artists in every generation. And I think there are lots of people who are coming up, in this time, who are big stars. I think the difference isn’t so much about the artists, I think the difference is more about the industry, how people want immediate images, and how publicity driven shoots are very, very different. They’re controlled now. Every piece of it is controlled. If you look back into the [late] ‘60s and look at the great pictures by Jim Marshall and all the other great music photographers for example, they would just hang out with the artists and they would hang out for weeks, go on tour, [and] just walk backstage and introduce themselves. Now, everything has to be organized and they don’t want you taking pictures. They only give you a certain amount of time and it’s terribly restricting. If they could work now the way they did then…. I think the industry’s different, not the fact that they’re interesting people to photograph.
AA: What impact do you hope viewers gain from seeing these last pictures of Cobain?
JF: I want to invite people into the shoot and to share some of the experience of how the shoot became. I am fascinated when I look at other books and I see these pictures…I love that. Maybe it’s because I’m a photographer but I love inviting somebody on the inside of anything. Seeing a band recording and inside the studio, to see a painter as he paints on the canvas. And although someone can’t be with me on the shoot, they can certainly see the contact sheets and the way we put the pictures together. It’s not a work in progress book, [but] it’s a book that shares the photo shoot with the public. I think the fans love that and that’s why I did this book. I also did it because photographers would find it interesting as well, because I have equal fascination with other photographers’ work.
AA: You also work with fashion editorials. What do you find is different between shooting fashion and music?
JF: Sometimes not much and sometimes a great deal. Sometimes I find musicians in more of a raw fashion as a portrait, as I would photographing someone [walking] down the street. No styling, no hair and make-up. Just them as they are, as they present themselves, very much unlike fashion. And sometimes I shoot [musicians] with a full team of hair and make-up and it becomes very similar to fashion, so it’s almost like a fashion shoot, especially, of course, when you’re shooting women. Women that are fashionable and are musicians tend to put much more energy into the look of the clothes, obviously, so it’s very close to fashion.
AA: Who is your dream subject to shoot?
JF: That’s alive? (laughs)
AA: (laughs) No, dead or alive.
JF: Dead or alive, well, Dalai Lama, Jimi Hendrix, and Elvis. Those three are at the top of the list. I could go on and on. There’s a lot of people that are alive that fascinate me. Like Obama and Clinton…I wouldn’t know where to start to be honest with you. I am fascinated with people and some people a lot more than others.
AA: What upcoming projects are you working on? Or are you taking a break after this book?
JF: No, I’m actually working on a book on flowers and guns. Then I have my editorial/commercial work that I will be working on. [In terms of personal projects] the flowers and guns project is fascinating to me and I hope to complete that in the next year.
– Interview by Ariana Atwater for The Untitled Magazine