It’s such a great concept: a baby underwater, naked, defenceless, can’t breathe, but still going after the dollar on a fishhook. Nirvana’s record label, Geffen, came to me with the idea. I was marketing myself as the underwater photography guy at the time. But when they asked me to shoot the sleeve [for Nevermind] I had no idea whether I could do it. Shooting a baby was new for me. I really didn’t want to drown the little guy!
I was lucky that my friends had just had a baby, Spencer, and they trusted me with him. The band weren’t on anyone’s radar at that point, so the shoot was really small-scale – there was no art director, no manager or account executive looking over your shoulder.
I think I got $1,000 to shoot it – that was for everything, including the gear and the cost of another rescue diver. I had a snorkel and an underwater camera on a tripod. First, we trained on a doll. Then we took the little guy, blew a little air into his face and eased him into the water. Dad gave him a small shove, he drifted by the camera – bang, bang, bang, bang, bang – I shot off five frames. Mum pulls him out, he’s cool, so we go again. Put him in – bang, bang, bang, bang, bang – he starts to cry, “OK, we’re done!” We ended up with about 25 frames. It took an hour to set up and five minutes to do.
I knew I had the shot. That’s the thing about old-school photography – as a pro, you have to know that you’ve got it before you leave. But when I looked at it more closely I had some doubts. I thought, “Man, it’s such a dick shot!” His unit was so prominent in the picture … he’s a well hung kid for a four-month old, you know? I didn’t know if the label would go for it. So I went to a kids’ swim school and got half a dozen other babies in the water. This one girl was 10 months old, she could really motor, so I shot her from the side. But the label loved the original shot of Spencer and went with that.
A guy in New York shot the dollar bill. I wish that I’d done that part, too. It would have been easy, but I didn’t care at the time. I’m just glad I didn’t have to capture it all in one shot. It’s one thing to drown the kid, but another to stick him on a fishhook!
I’m still in contact with Spencer. I used to think, “Man, when that kid is 16 he’s gonna hate my guts!” He doesn’t, but he’s conflicted about the picture. He feels that everybody made money off it and he didn’t. I think he deserves something. But it’s always the record labels that make the money.
When Spencer was 10, I recreated the image with him for Rolling Stone. He’s done it a few times since with another shooter, which I don’t like! But we’ve got a good relationship, and I’m still tight with his parents. I still notice new things in the picture. Recently, I realised that you can see a handprint on Spencer’s chest. If you look closely – that’s his dad’s handprint!
For a while after that shot I was the golden child. People were like, ‘Hey, everything we do should be underwater!’ But the work was sporadic, and it’s a tough medium to work in. The model can’t see or hear you, it’s hard to direct, everything is super slow, it’s like having your feet in mud.
I even ended up shooting the band underwater a few months after this shot. That was a hairy job. Looking back, I could have done things differently. I thought 10am would be a nice time of day for them, but of course if you’re in a band it’s not – they were pissed off when they turned up. It was a rare cold, grey day in California, and there were problems with the pool so that was cold, too. The band hadn’t been told about it, so they were, like, “We’ve got to get in the water?” And then the label didn’t like the shots – they wanted something slicker. They said: “We don’t like Kurt Cobain’s hair!” I thought, man, there ain’t nothing I can do about his hair! But those images are really popular now.
Of course, if I’d shot this for some band that never went anywhere we wouldn’t be talking about it now – it’d just be a cool picture in a filing cabinet. It’s a big deal to a lot of people, but not to me. I’m proud of how it turned out, but I don’t sit around looking at it. Having said that, I’m going to recreate the image again this summer. I want to shoot a girl diving into a pool, going after a cellphone – because every teenage girl I ever see now is on their phone. I’d also like to shoot Spencer again, but with him totally naked like in the original. He’s 27 now, and has some really good tats these days. Maybe I should call him up.
Born: “USA, 1959. I have always moved a lot and I don’t really have a home town.”
Training: “Photography Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. Then about 10 years of assisting other photographers – that’s where I really earned my chops.”
Influences: “I get a lot of inspiration from the people I photograph. When I work with someone who’s interesting and well rounded with passion, its contagious.”
High point: “When I make an image that I really strong and I like it and other people get it, too.”
Low point: “When I’m not available for a gig and and the client says, ‘Oh don’t worry, I’ll use my phone.’”
Top tip: “Keep your eyes open, and be ready.”