Anyone with even a cursory interest in grunge rock acts of the ‘90s has seen Karen Mason Blair’s photographs. Did you pick up a 7-inch of Soundgarden’s “Room a Thousand Years Wide”? That’s Blair’s picture of the group on the sleeve, grinning/grimacing at the camera. The cover art of Nirvana’s Live at the Paramount featured her photos too (the vinyl edition features even more of her shots on the inner gatefold). She’s photographed Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Mother Love Bone, Screaming Trees, Skin Yard, the Posies…a veritable Who’s Who of Northwest Rock.
So Blair had a rich archive to draw from in compiling her first book, The Flannel Years: A Photographic Tour, which captures a music scene on the verge of going supernova. It’s something perfectly illustrated by a shot of a Poison concert at the Seattle Center Coliseum on January 17, 1991. Alice in Chains opened for the band, and they joined the headliners on stage for a romp through KISS’ “Rock and Roll All Nite.” Blair’s photo shows Alice guitarist Jerry Cantrell sharing the mic with Poison’s Bret Michaels, at a period when grunge was just about to wash away hair metal bands en masse. As Blair notes, it’s a shot that shows the passing the of the torch — even though neither musician realized that at the time.
Blair was on hand for some historic moments in our music history. She was the only pro photographer in the audience when Pearl Jam played their very first show on October 22, 1990, at what was then the Off Ramp (now El Corazon/The Funhouse). The band is so dressed down, it’s as if they’d just strolled over from their rehearsal space (and who knows — maybe they had!). She also took photos of one of Mother Love Bone’s last shows, as well as shooting their last studio session. A color shot from the latter session — Andy Wood’s face looming in the foreground, with the rest of the band in an arc behind him, ‘60s pop star style — went on to be used in countless articles.
The photographer had fun with her subjects. She got Mother Love Bone to sit still in the midst of a mass of bubbles floating around them, courtesy of a bubble machine. She got Alice in Chains to don Santa hats and sit in a red wagon, smiling as if they’re posing for a teen idol magazine like 16 or Tiger Beat. Her friendship and closeness with the bands comes through in their unguarded expressions. Chris Cornell smiles with quiet confidence directly into her camera in a studio session in 1991. In a solo session with Cantrell in 1990, he looks serious and somber, older than his 24 years, his long hair glowing, his dark shirt providing the only contrast in the black and white shot.
The Santa hats were a recurring motif for Blair; she got Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic to pose with them backstage on the night of Nirvana’s Paramount concert on Halloween, 1991 (one of the pictures was later used on In Utero’s inner packaging). And that Live at the Paramount cover was actually a composite, that blended together two shots of the band; one of Novoselic and Dave Grohl, and another of Cobain. The Flannel Years presents the photos in their unaltered state, and the one of Cobain is particularly striking. He’s seen in mid-strum, looking down, standing out against the pitch-black background, with a spotlight shining above him, like a star. Seemingly a moment of calm in the midst of a rock ‘n’ roll storm.
There are some casual pictures as well, such as a backstage shot of Everclear hanging out with DJ Marco Collins at End Fest in 1995. It makes The Flannel Years something of a scrapbook of a very heady era, as experienced by someone who was lucky enough to have front row access. And the good news is that Blair says her book is just the first in a series, “as I have many more photos to share, and more stories to tell.” Prints of her work are available on her website, karenmasonblair.com, ranging in price from limited edition fine art prints, to very reasonably priced “value prints” (just $35). You’ll find her book for sale on her website too, and her Facebook page (Karen Mason-Blair Photography) is a great place to find out about upcoming signings and events.