Bring back some good or bad memories


February 28, 2023

Nirvana in New York, Photographed by Stephen Sweet for Melody Maker (UK), 1993

Photoshoot for a 2-part interview in Melody Maker (UK) weekly newspaper. The whole day was reserved for press, and photographer Stephen Sweet picked up the band by taxicab and brought them to the Liberty Theatre, an abandoned movie theatre on the 42nd street, Manhattan, for the photo session.

Jenny Holzer’s art installations that focus on the delivery of words and ideas in public places were the featured backdrop for the photos. The shots are often referred to as the “Men Don’t Protect You Anymore” photos. This is one of her works of the ‘survival’ series, where she, thorough quotes tries to communicate and evoke a public’s reaction to sexual assault.

Stephen had also taken photos of Nirvana’s performance at Roseland Ballroom on the previous night. Here’s the story behind the photoshoot:

“The way I remember it is that the shoot took place the day before the show at Roselands, in New York. Nirvana were playing towards the end of the week of the New Music Seminar. In my mind that meant a Sunday night show, but a quick search tells me that the concert was on July 23rd 1993, a Friday. 

It follows the shoot must have taken place Thursday July 22nd 1993. Where is easier. The theatre in the background was the Liberty Theatre. The address was 233 W 41st St, New York, NY 10036. Obviously, we were standing across the street from there. It was planned as much as it could be on my part. I like that you think it has the look of a shot grabbed on the way to somewhere else.   

Let me explain what I mean and what was arranged. Apart from photographing the gigs during the week of the New Music Seminar, and the shoots that happened through those days, I knew at the close of the festival I was there to meet with Nirvana for a photo shoot. So far so organized. Thing was, I had enough bad experience to know it would be a chaotic shit fight of a day no matter what guarantees anyone supposed they had. 

The shoot was for Melody Maker. I was told to get enough for 2 to 3 front covers. Also, lots of promotional shots for the magazine and plenty candids. I knew I needed several locations lined up in my head, or more likely one location with alternative backgrounds. I had the fear that it could end up being 5 minutes in the lobby of their hotel.  

My main aim was to photograph one of the biggest bands around at that time, and to place them in a busy street and to see what transpired. I wanted to take them on the subway (done to death now, at that time I don't remember seeing it anywhere). I found 41st street was full of closed up movie theatres and slogans had replaced the film line ups. I considered Port Authority terminal if it was raining. I liked 41st street because I could take the group shot then I could turn everything the other direction and it looked sufficiently different. 

On the morning of the shoot the hotel lobby they were staying at was packed out with photographers, it was messy and the mood was anxious and ugly. I found the running order for the shoots and saw that I was around 5th. There was a feeling something was wrong; time was wearing on and Kurt was still in his room. Krist and Dave were closed off, talking to their people. No one knew what the problem was. I asked someone to point out to me who was first on the list and I pushed through the throng and went for a talk with that photographer. He seemed stressed and did not really have a clear idea of what he wanted to do. (I think he said he might take them to Central Park. It didn’t sound promising.) I offered to swap with him and he jumped at the chance. I went back and told Anton Brookes (Nirvana’s UK press agent, and part organizer of the running order) the news. 

Just then the lift doors opened and Kurt came out sweating profusely and looking like he wanted to be anywhere else. He came over to Anton and the managers. They all turned to me and said “OK, what do you want to do?” I mentioned the subway. They all looked at Kurt and he said ”No”. I mentioned 41st and the abandoned cinemas and that got a better reaction. They said “You have to be back here in 1 hour.” It took 3 taxis all in, crawling towards the location. All the time I was aware the maximum shooting time was likely to be 35 minutes. I would have been happy with 15 minutes as long as I got them to that location. 

“Men Don't Protect You Anymore.”

In the days leading up to the shoot I had seen this slogan on a cinema in the middle of the street between 7th and 8th Avenues and thought that If I could get Kurt to see it, he might be alright for me using it as part of the background. He saw it and said 'take my picture in front of that' so I obliged.  

If the band had any idea it was part of a Jenny Holzer installation, they did not mention it. I had no idea either. I have since learned the central nature of her work seems to be all about anonymity, no explanations beyond the words themselves. No handy guide about why it was there, just the face value of the words staged. 10 years earlier, in Amsterdam, I had seen “Abuse Of Power Comes As No Surprise” on a jetty at the water level in the port. Again, no explanations. It stuck with me. I thought it was to do with the spirit of the city and its supposed enlightened viewpoint. The cinemas in New York had the same feeling, strong, immediate slogans.

At the time the article containing this photograph appeared no one mentioned Jenny Holzer, or for a few years following. One day I found a second hand book of hers, and as soon as I saw the cover it all made sense. Now information is easy to find and link, back then there was very little. This photograph can't now be seen without Jenny Holzer’s name being in the same sentence, and I am happy about that. I have looked her up like everyone else and am proud to be associated. 

For a long while I was squeamish (to an extent) about appropriating. These days I look at it as a two way street. Last year Jenny Holzer requested photographs from this shoot to be part of a retrospective she had in Santiago, Chile.”


Post a Comment



Browse by Decades

Popular Posts


09 10