Fotograf Magazine

Necessary Evil

Interview with Thurston Moore

From the very first day they had the audacity to see themselves as artists. While in 1981 the early American hardcore scene abhorred anything that smacked of high culture, Sonic Youth soaked up the influences of contemporary classical music, which embraced harmonic textures and rhythm rather than melody, and placed these into a rock sensibility. At the same time, music was simply a point of departure for a much larger sense of aesthetic engagement, where under their supervision club audiences quickly learned to absorb the devices of not only the concert hall, but also the gallery. In retrospect, one would be hard pressed to find a more diverse cross-section of tendencies present in American visual arts of the era 1981-2011 than is offered by the curatorial perspective of Sonic Youth. Their album covers, music videos, posters and shirt designs offer a pageant of directors, painters (Richard Prince), illustrators (Raymond Pettibon), conceptual artists (Mike Kelley, Tony Oursler) and photographers (Jeff Wall, Marnie Weber, Richard Kern). Sonic Youth went far beyond the limitations of most rock bands, without exaggeration absorbing the entire visual culture of their time. Nor has this interdisciplinary fascination been abandoned by the members of the band since its break-up. Singer and guitarist Thurston Moore has founded the publishing house Ecstatic Peace Library and has contributed to several photography monographs in the capacity of an editor. When he arrived in Prague to play a solo concert, the first place he went before his sound check was to see abstract paintings by František Kupka at the Kampa Museum.


There is an old photo from your family album on the cover of your last record
The Best Day. It is an image of your mother when she was young. She’s in the water with her dog on a summer day. Why this particular photo?

It was simple. I was at my mother’s house looking in her photographic scrapbooks. I saw that image. I had seen it before throughout my life and it is such a striking image for me. What a great photo! When I saw it few moths ago I realized this would be a very cool image for a record cover, so I stole it. She never lets me take things from the house. I stole it and she didn’t know about it. I just gave her the record last week and that was the first time she saw it. It looks like a movie still. It’s like from a different world. I like the nature of it. It exhibits the quality of being safe, calm and in love.


Sonic Youth rarely used personal images. You have always preferred to have
other artists to do the covers.

That’s true. The most personal imagery we used was on the cover of Sister.
Everybody brought something so it was a personal collage. And my daughter Coco is on the cover of Murray Street.


Being in a band means being photographed a lot. You are always in front of the camera.

I don’t particularly like to be photographed. Especially at this time in my life when I‘m in my fifties. Even when I was in my twenties, I remember my only feeling about it was that it was something that had to be done. A necessary evil. One thing I hated the most was when we became more professional and when you put out a new record you had to do a photo session. The photos that are going to be used in the whole campaign. That’s an industry thing. The sessions when you have a good photographer, a big budget and spend the entire day shooting the band. It was a forced situation. I always liked the idea of photographs coming from magic life… when somebody captures something. Like all the great photographers have done throughout history. People like Henri Cartier-Bresson or the now very popular Vivian Maier. She was a classic street photographer. She didn’t ask people to create a situation. The situations were already created and she captured them. I always wanted something like that with our band, but in our case everything was usually premeditated. At the same time I am always impressed by people like David Bowie who worked with Mick Rock. He said I want to look like this, I want to stand in this street corner, I want to be posing like this… those are very strange and beautiful photos. There are different ways about it. But I always find that the least successful photographs are the ones when you hire a photographer, you set up in a studio and start the photo session. For me it doesn’t work.


It’s funny that when you go through photos of Sonic Youth, they are surprisingly constant. They pretty much look the same from the 1980s and all through the 90s. You look like the same band, the same people wearing the same clothes in the same photo. Which seems to me like there was some conscious idea behind that.

There was never any conscious idea about this consistency. But I do remember when we did photos for Daydream Nation with Michael Lavine – I edited a book of his recently. At that time we needed band photographs. It wasn’t a professional photo-shoot. Michael was somebody we knew who was taking photographs. We just spent one night walking around taking photographs. To this day these are the most iconic photographs of Sonic Youth.


Beside the book Grunge with Michael Lavine you also did a book with James Hamilton.

Yeah, he’s very important. He was a street photographer but he was also an
assignment / photo-graphs for The Village Voice. He wasn’t going out taking photographs for the pleasure of just being a photographer. I think he just found out that he was pretty good at it. He figured out quickly that he could take photographs and sell them to the papers. He saw it as a job but he was great at it. He was capturing very surprising moments. For example Patti Smith and Tom Verlaine holding hands in front of a record store. He saw them walking down the street. His technique and composition were very natural. His work doesn’t really exist much outside of his huge archive, there is very little on the Internet. Most people haven’t seen it. Now we have the director Wes Anderson helping him with a film book. He does set photography for Wes Anderson and has shot a lot of poets, writers, actors. But he was never ambitious. I introduced him to people from museums and galleries, they were interested in his work but he never called back. He never calls back. He is in his seventies and he’s got no desire for fame. He feels he did the work and it is there.


He also took some pictures of Sonic Youth.

He took some in 1988. Maybe.


Was he one of those photographers you were bored with?

Not at all. We went to his tiny apartment – the same place he has lived since
1965. At that time I thought, this is going to be some snotty Village Voice photographer. But the photos were good. Meeting him many years later and going through his archive… it takes forever. And I have only seen a little bit.


What you go for as an editor? Do you prefer the documentary aspect of pictures or the aesthetic one?

The most important is the energy of pictures. Then the subject matter – how
significant the person is in relation to the genre or film. Putting one person here, the other there. Here is Bono and there is John Zorn. Creating a flow and playing with it, mixing celebrities with artists.


And how was it with Michael Lavine and his book Grunge?

Michael Lavine was much more concerned about how the book was going to
flow. He was very strong about things, whereas James Hamilton allowed me to establish that. James Hamilton really wanted the cover of his book to be B.B. King. The book of Michael Lavine was my idea. I knew how significant his archive was. Especially the part when he captured the movement around Nirvana. But he did so much more. He did LL Cool J, commercial work for magazines. But I wasn’t interested in it. It was beautiful but it was too much. And then he had the whole collection he had done at university when he was shooting people on the street in Seattle. They were the models for what later became Mudhoney and Nirvana. To me that was the core of the book.


What about Richard Kern? He comes from pretty much the same place that
Sonic Youth came from. This creative New York scene – Michael Lavine is much more of a professional and commercial photographer.

Michael Lavine came out of doing photography in art school in Olympia, Washington. He came to New York to work. I think Richard Kern came to New York just to be in New York. Maybe to go to CBGB, to hang out there and make fanzines. He came to New York because he had creative impulses, not because he wanted to be a photographer. He followed his impulses. I worked with him on some of his books but I wouldn’t call it editing. He is somebody I met through Lydia Lunch in the 1980s. Kern and Lavine are quite different but they actually worked together for a while. They are very different people but they like each other’s work. Richard once told me: “Michael is a real photographer.” Lavine knows where to put lights and how to set up a studio. But Richard is always looking for what he wants to see in the picture. He never was an assistant to a professional photographer. It is like in music in a way. Not knowing how to play guitar but going onstage. That’s maybe why I am more like Richard. He picked up the camera the way I picked up my guitar.


Looking at Sonic Youth covers, how did you decide what would appear on them discipline wise? Painting? Photograph? Collage?

On A Thousand Leaves we used a collage from Marnie Weber. We went to
see some show of hers and the image was there. It was great surrealistic piece
of art. We never chose an artist who we thought had value in the art world. It was always somebody we were familiar with. Mike Kelley who did the cover for Dirty, he was friends with Kim so we called him.


Was there ever discussion about it? Arguing in the band?

Yeah, there was a little bit “push me, pull me” on some. I brought the Gerhard
Richter piece once early on before Daydream Nation to use. But it didn’t fly.


Did you vote on that?

Sometimes it was a power play in a way, two against three. But I don’t remember anything heated. I think when we did NYC Ghosts & Flowers I had a print of William S. Burroughs painting and expected some problems and arguing. I was surprised everybody liked it. It worked.


You’re 6ft 6. Was your height ever a problem when taking band photos?

Yeah, it does happen once in a while. Sometimes photographers ask me to crouch.

Pavel Turek, Michal Nanoru