JJ Gonson Shot the Greats of Grunge

Photos and captions by JJ Gonson

Music photographer and punk rock archivist JJ Gonson began shooting bands back in the mid-80s.

Covering Boston and beyond, she shot thousands of them, starting with the second wave of hardcore and eventually bearing witness to the rise of a style that would one day be referred to as ‘grunge.’ Her work, which appeared in the pages of Rip, Creem, Boston Rock, the Boston Globe, Rolling Stone and Spin, to name a few, captured the spirit of live performances, along with the chaotic, raw energy of life in the pit. Ultimately, however, it remains her candid shots of fallen friends that remain her most popular pics. For better or worse, it’s her early work of troubled troubadours like Kurt Cobain and Elliott Smith that keep catapulting her name and work back into the spotlight.

Henry Rollins and Black Flag circa 1986 around Boston.

With a broken heart and the bad taste from a disenchanted college career still lingering in her mouth, Gonson swore away rock ‘n’ roll and left Boston. After joining the circus, Gonson would eventually find herself in the underground musical mecca of Portland, Oregon in its early 90s heyday. Unable to stay away long, her renewed interest in music photography captured a scene in its earliest days of notoriety. Her work would grace the cover of Elliott Smith’s first two records—the second of which recently received a 25th-anniversary commemorative treatment by Kill Rock Stars.

While Gonson has become largely disenchanted with professional photography in the digital age, she remains an accomplished photographer, documenting daily life in her own way. But every now and then she goes back into her archives to release more iconic shots for the wondering world to see.

Tell us about your earliest relationship with photography. What drew you in? When did it become a job?

I’ve always seen the world as a photograph. I see negative space, shape and colour. When I was very little, I was given a Kodak Instamatic camera and I took pictures of my parents and my cat. Then when I was in junior high, my grandmother gave me my first SLR camera for my bat mitzvah. It was a very low-end Minolta with a Vivitar lens. It wasn’t as sharp as say a Canon or a Nikon, but I started shooting with that when I was thirteen. I shot my friends in grammar school and junior high. I shot my friends in high school and right after I graduated, I [went] to art school; I went to the Museum School. I was what was called a Master of the Guild. I had a key to the darkroom and stuff. So, I went to school for photography. I was still in high school when I figured out I could take pictures of rock bands, and I was really excited about that, but they weren’t very good.

The Descendents either before or after another one of those all-ages matinées, only at TT The Bears, in Cambridge. I got them all lined up and as soon as I got a shot, Bill stood up and walked way, making a better picture.

I got into college and met a [music] writer who needed a photographer, and I started taking pictures of hardcore bands, but I was really interested in what would come to be known as grunge. In 1985, it wasn’t called that yet. The bands I was interested in 1985 were bands like Big Black and Hüsker Dü. I was way more interested in the Butthole Surfers than I was the Descendents, but what I was shooting was the Descendents. I was shooting the second wave of hardcore on tour. I grew up in Cambridge [Massachusetts], so I was shooting mostly in Boston and Cambridge, but a little in New York. It was a job. I would shoot all the bands on the bill in black and white because that’s what I could develop and print at school. So, I was taking advantage of this free lab and getting paid very little, although I just had a conversation with someone the other day who told me I wasn’t getting paid any less than people are now. I mean, it was a very worthy investment, because now I have this body of work.

When I got out of school, I made this dramatic statement about how I was retiring from rock photography and I left the world. I had my heartbroken and I just said, ‘Fuck it’ and walked away from rock ‘n’ roll, but I kept taking pictures, just not of rock bands. I went on this sort of walkabout where I ended up in Portland, Oregon in 1991—not going to see bands, not involved in music… It took about a year to get me back.

Jon Spencer with Pussy Galore at the Rat, circa 1989.

Did anything happen between leaving Boston for Portland?

I graduated from college with a degree in education. I finished all of my coursework and was certified to teach, and I was an art teacher in 1990, which was not a good thing to be doing. I graduated and I had this degree and, as I said, I had my heart broken. So, I put everything in a VW bus and headed south to join a circus. I spent a little time with the circus, but I left that job because it was abusive. My boss was awful, a horrible human being. I just left and I went to Portland because I had friends there. I got a job in a coffee shop—baking pies and cakes—and that’s how I met Elliott Smith and Heatmiser. They were there too. I met a lot of the bands before I got back into music. I was taking pictures of everything around me because that’s what I do.

Elliott Smith

Was it ever really a career or just more of a hobby?

In the 80s it was a career. I was cultivating a cadre of magazines who bought my work. I worked for Rip and Creem and Spin and Rolling Stone and Boston Rock and the Globe and the XXX Fanzine. I was getting published wherever I could because my idea was to be a successful photojournalist. Then I kind of had the shit kicked out of me in college. I went to art school, which has no respect for photojournalism. I was told that I wasn’t an artist and I wasn’t a photographer and I should just give up. So, I stopped pursuing it as a career because there were other things that I always did. For a long time, those things were in music. I was managing bands and booking tours as well as taking pictures; and I worked in restaurants, because that’s a thing you can do. I have always thought of myself as a photographer, but I have always thought of myself as a hobbyist. It’s part of who I am. It’s part of my being and my personality, but it’s not my profession.

So, you find yourself in Portland, and…

When I was in Portland, I started in food. I worked in a bunch of restaurants. I got a job at a label called TK Records. I was managing bands and booking tours and then I started a label called Undercover, which was a project label. I made a lot of compilations, but the whole time I was managing bands and booking tours. I booked Everclear’s first tour. Isn’t that funny? It’s a thing. People really care about Heatmiser, that’s what they really care about. I booked Heatmiser’s tours.

I have always known I had these intimate photos of Elliott, and it never occurred to me that no one else did. The photo of him right in front of the camera tipping his hat shows him the way I remember him. Cheeky and cute. I’m glad I have these pictures to show a different side of him than the common image you see in the media of a dark and brooding man.

Some of your photos have become iconic because they capture musicians who would later get big and then, sadly, pass away. Were these photos out there before that, or were they thrust into the spotlight after they died?

Gosh, I can’t think of a time that any of those were published. Like that picture of Kurt with the crucifix, I know I had scanned them before and they may have been out there, but I think the first time they were published was in a book called Cobain Unseen, by Charles Cross. I mean I may have shown them to the band at the time… maybe. None of my work… I still don’t think of any of my work as being well-known, but that photo, people know that photo. That one picture, and the other that I get a lot of attention for is the cover of Roman Candle, the first Elliott Smith record. Still, it’s only very, very, very recently that those pictures have been seen.

The photo for the cover of the self-titled Elliott Smith album is one I took on a walkabout trip to Europe with a friend and a backpack. It is of a sculpture outside of a museum in Prague, and I have always thought of it as people floating, rather than falling. Maybe they are even floating upwards.

A lot of those photos seem to be more personal photos and not meant for public consumption.

I was always just documenting everything around me. And I still do that, but now I do it with my phone. Do you know the filmmaker Wim Wenders? There’s a movie called Until the End of the World, and it’s all about memory: preserving memory, sharing memory and losing memory. I’ve been obsessed with the tangible and the intangible and it’s very much Wim Wenders, this idea that what you keep is not necessarily the whole story, and is the narrative [even] real? I notice this all the time. What I crop out is really important. I believe the photos should always be full-frame and I think that with those photos, there’s no question that I recognised the talent.

Daytime, all-ages hardcore show at the Rat in Boston, around 1986. Those were awesome shows, those hardcore touring matinées.

The first time I talked to Nirvana was at Green Street Station. It was the first time they played Boston. There were thirteen people there and they were mind-bogglingly good, and I didn’t shoot. I didn’t have a camera with me. The pictures that people know, the pictures of them drinking Nesquik and sleeping on my floor were taken the morning after. I mean, I have pictures of lots of bands sleeping on my floor and hanging out and drinking coffee in the morning and posing by their van. That was a thing I did. I was selling pictures at the time to magazines, so it’d be like, ‘Hey, let’s do a shoot just in case I can help you.’ Just in case it’s useful. At the time it was much more about promoting them than about them being famous… because they were not.

Do you have favourite photos of yours that aren’t the ones you’re known for?

Sure, lots. Thousands. I think my best work is pictures of my kids. You don’t want to see pictures of my kids. Maybe you do. Somebody actually said on social media the other day that, ‘I love your pictures no matter who they’re of.’ And that was the nicest thing because sometimes I think the only reason anybody looks at my work is Kurt Cobain. I also feel real strongly about it as art. I was told my entire college career that what I did wasn’t art. So that wasn’t new.

Kurt Cobain. This was probably their second time around on tour and they played a couple of shows, I think. A party at MIT and a show at Manray. We were driving around in the van and Kurt was holding up his point and shoot camera in front of things and taking pictures. Ironically. Very hipster.

It must be pretty heavy diving back into archives of photos. Does it pain you to go back, especially since the photos that people really want are photos of friends that have passed away?

It’s become less emotional over the years and more exciting for me to show the work. It has been hard from time to time, but it’s been great to go back into the archives and make these photos available. People never knew I had the Elliott Smith photos until two years ago. Nobody ever asked. There were all these people that were like, ‘Will you do interviews? Will you do interviews? Show us your pictures.’ I just walked away. I couldn’t do any of it for a long time. I feel like now I’m personally able to do more than I was because I think that he’d be okay with it. I think he’d be real happy that people want them. He always wanted me to be super successful, so I think he’d be really cool with it. Who knows? Some of it is harder than others.

Elliott Smith

There’s also this super-detachment. I’m bipolar, so I have a tendency to dissociate anyway. So, in some ways, I’m very detached, and then other times I find myself really upset and it’s like, ‘Oh maybe it’s because I’ve just been looking at photos of Elliott all day.’ It’s not, ‘Oh, I feel so bad for my friend.’ It’s more like, ‘God I feel really fucked up and angry and sad. Maybe it’s because I spent this past month doing interviews about Elliott.’ It’s not a one-to-one equation. There are things that are harder now because of the pandemic.


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