Jesse Frohman (A.B. ’81) sat in the lobby of New York City’s Omni Hotel, waiting for Kurt Cobain. He had all the cameras, lenses, and lights they’d need. He’d already discussed his plans with the magazine that had assigned the gig, and he was excited about snapping street shots in Manhattan and posing the band in Central Park. In the nearly 10 years he’d worked in photography, Frohman says, “I couldn’t prepare more for a job than I did for that one.”
Still, Frohman sat. Hours of waiting became more hours. Nirvana bassist Chris Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl came by a few times, but plans were stalled without Cobain. High hopes for a morning photo shoot fell hard as Frohman worked out alternative options.
They absolutely could not do the shoot in Cobain’s hotel room, said the band’s manager. And they certainly couldn’t, Frohman knew, hang out for a bit, loosen up, and get comfortable with the cameras before starting. Instead, they’d just use a backdrop that Frohman fortunately had in his car and squeeze everyone into a tiny conference room somewhere in the hotel.
“I had to make a big adjustment,” Frohman says. “I think what you want to do is create the environment and the possibility for a special thing to happen. That’s the real challenge of being in the studio. If anyone tells you that photography is about cameras and lighting and not about psychology … they have another thing coming.”
When Cobain finally arrived—30 minutes before the band needed to be at rehearsal—he said to Frohman, “Hi, nice to meet you. Do you happen to have a bucket? I think I might puke.”
And they started taking pictures. With Cobain’s charisma, the job was easy.
At the time, neither Frohman nor anyone realized that he’d be one of the last photographers to work with Cobain before Cobain killed himself just a few months later.
Come as You Are
Frohman started at U-M as an engineering major but found that he wasn’t much interested in the sciences. He switched to economics and took all sorts of electives: logic, languages, art history, photography. “I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do, even while I was doing it,” he says. “Photography was the fun one.”
He loved shooting portraits at the big, old house he rented on South University Avenue, which had beautiful rooms and plenty of light. He took abstract photos of interior architecture in campus buildings, using a special method called platinum printing.
“The process is all about bringing out the wonderful nuance of black-and-white shading and tonal scales,” he says, a process mastered by American photographer Irving Penn, whose stark portraits include Picasso, Georgia O’Keeffe, Igor Stravinsky, Miles Davis, and John F. Kennedy.
After graduation, Frohman moved to New York City with his portfolio and worked up the nerve to ask Penn for an internship. The swift rejection felt like a bludgeon. Penn said to Frohman, “You’re very talented, and you’ll go very far, but we’ll never work together.”
“It just simply was a shock to have my idol, the great one, the god of modern photography in many ways, flat-out reject me,” Frohman remembers. “I couldn’t understand why.”
Frohman wound up interning with a fashion photographer in the same building as Penn—luckily, it turned out. Frohman snagged invites to exhibit openings, rubbed elbows, and got a few more meetings with Penn, who offered Frohman a job. Twice. Frohman initially turned Penn down on the grounds that he thought Penn’s offers were too advanced for what he could do.
“It was obvious that it would’ve been the biggest mistake of my life to say no just because I was challenged,” Frohman says. “But emotionally, you have a moment where you’re like, ‘Can I do this? I don’t want to disappoint.’ But then you just do it. As scary as it is, that’s how you do something.”
He took the job.
Frohman's career in photography has included portraits, fashion, advertising, and still lifes like this one.
Frohman ran Penn’s studio for four years. From there, he transitioned to a freelance career, eventually photographing people like John Updike, Run-DMC, Scarlett Johansson, Winona Ryder, Woody Allen, and Derek Jeter for such publications as Vanity Fair, Vogue, Spin, Rolling Stone, and the New Yorker.
After 30 years of photo shoots, Frohman ranks James Brown second on his list of most unconventional subjects. The shoot was memorably disastrous. Frohman walked off the set before they rescheduled, and a second try gave them great photos.
First on that list is Cobain.
The Hidden Track
Cobain refused to take off his sunglasses. Frohman was desperate for a picture that would show the singer’s undisguised expression, but in the end, it didn’t matter. Cobain was so dynamic and interesting that the huge, dark Jackie-O frames became part of his personality—even morphed to become his eyes, in a strange way.
Nevermind, Nirvana's second studio album, came out on September 24, 1991. At its peak, the album sold 300,000 copies per week, replacing Michael Jackson's Dangerous in the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200 chart in January 1992. By the time Cobain sat for this photo shoot with Frohman, Nirvana was touring to promote its last and latest album, In Utero.
The shoot produced a remarkable number of “hero pictures”—what Frohman calls perfect portraits that he wouldn’t change at all. But later, long after Nirvana had dissolved, Frohman thought more about the other photos. “I like those in-between moments,” he says. “I like to see the pictures that aren’t so perfect.”
Those hero photos have lived for decades. They’re on the posters for the 2015 documentary about Cobain, Montage of Heck. And Frohman published more pictures from the shoot, the iconic and the in-between, in a book called Kurt Cobain around the 20th anniversary of Cobain’s death. Two more editions will be published in the next few years.
“I found these gems that originally I did not consider because there was something off about them,” he says in the book. “Maybe he was drooling, maybe he was holding a bottle of water. You don’t want those pictures … you want the pictures of the perfect moment in that time.
“But then I realized these were the real portraits—the in-between moments—and the portrait wasn’t just one picture. It was almost like shooting a film: You have one moment among many that was a ‘perfect’ picture, where his gesture is just right, but all those other moments tell the story.”
Photos by Jesse Frohman