The photographer and art director behind one of rock's most memorable images explain how the cover came together
Twenty-five years ago this month, Nirvana released their second album, Nevermind, which unleashed grunge upon the mainstream and changed rock and roll forever. While the music was certainly groundbreaking, so was the record’s cover art: it showed a naked, 4-month-old, submerged in water, swimming towards a dollar bill attached to a fish hook. Back in 1992, EW got the inside story of how the iconic image came together through interviews with the photographer and art director. Revisit the story below.
“Okay, throw the baby in the pool now.”
With those words, uttered by photographer Kirk Weddle, 4-month-old Spencer Elden was on his way to fame (though not fortune) as the baby on the cover of Nirvana’s chart-topping album, Nevermind. You know the picture: The little fella is submerged in chlorinated depths, his baby penis protrudes beneath his chubby tummy, and his arms are outstretched in that “please pick me up and carry me out of the store” kind of way. Inches away, a dollar bill on a fishhook tempts him.
The image has been interpreted by fans as a metaphor for Nirvana, a neophyte band being reeled in by corporate rock’s big bucks. But according to Geffen Records art director Robert Fisher, Nirvana’s lead singer-guitarist Kurt Cobain had seen a documentary on babies being born underwater, and “thought the image would make a cool cover. That vision was a bit too graphic, so we went with the swimming baby instead.”
Unable to find a stock shot of a submarine tyke, Fisher hired underwater-photo specialist Weddle, who donned a wet suit and set up a studio (complete with lights and waterproof cameras) in an Olympic-size swimming pool in Los Angeles last May. Spencer wasn’t the lone stunt baby: Weddle cast four other infants as well. “You need that many kids,” he says, “because you can’t count on a baby to do anything you want.”
The babies were passed in front of the camera by either assistants or their parents, standing in the shallow end of the pool. When young Spencer hit the water, he drifted aimlessly toward the bottom for three or four seconds, while an assistant blew a puff of air in his face to wrinkle his nose.
“You could definitely feel the adrenaline rush in his little body,” recalls Spencer’s dad, movie-prop maker Rick Elden. “Spencer was like, ‘Whoa, what was that?'” After five shots, Weddle knew he had his cover. Later, the fishhook was stripped into the photo at Cobain’s direction.
For his skinny-dipping adventure, Spencer was paid $250 (standard hourly rate for a no-name model) and was later presented with a triple-platinum album by Ed Rosenblatt, president of Geffen Records. The shiny disc is displayed in the family’s L.A. living room. A Nevermind poster hangs above Spencer’s little bed.
Asked whether Spencer likes Nirvana (whom he never did meet), Rick Elden says the toddler is “pretty indifferent to the music.” Maybe he’ll grow up to be a rock critic.