MEET: Chris Cuffaro, The Man Behind The Lens

Grunge, Music, Photography -

MEET: Chris Cuffaro, The Man Behind The Lens

It’s not every day you get to kick back on a Wednesday afternoon and reminisce on Jane’s Addiction's last ever show in Hawaii or Nirvana’s first photo shoot with new drummer Dave Grohl. But, when the talented Chris Cuffaro’s in town and decides to stop by the brewery for a chat, well that’s exactly what happens.

Chris is getting ready for his Greatest Hits: Grunge Exhibition which opens at Blender Gallery this Thursday and while he doesn’t like being called a legend, it’s hard to think of another word that comes close to describing a man with such an impressive career. 

Spending time between L.A. and Seattle in the early 90s, Chris became a pivotal part of the infamous grunge movement, capturing both live and intimate moments from bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Mudhoney. I can’t really blame him when he admits the exhibition has been 8 years in the making, I’d take my time too; cherry picking iconic photographs momentous not only for Chris’ career as a music photographer, but for each and every band that was lucky enough to meet his lenses.

Chris’ exhibition celebrates a transformative time in America which shaped the course of rock history forever. The grunge movement was a sub-culture emerging in the mid 80s/early 90s, led by an unexpected group of misfits who stood for nonconformity and rebellion, and who would later become some of the world’s most influential artists.

“Grunge to me is one band and that is Mudhoney. NME labelled them “grunge” and that’s where the term came from. [When curating the exhibition] I had to ask, what is grunge to me? Some people will say Soundgarden is not grunge. Some people say Alice in Chains aren't grunge. Some people say the Afghan Wigs aren't grunge. I had to look at it, take a step back and make a list of everybody I had shot in that period. I had to think who was involved and what was the connection? What was the line that they all had?”

While Seattle may be the first place everyone thinks of when hearing the word “grunge,” Chris aims to showcase the artists, the music and the lifestyle which stretched far beyond the cold and gloomy North Western city.

"In Seattle at the time, what it was was nobody was paying attention to them. The biggest bands out of Seattle were Queensrÿche and Heart, two metal bands. What I saw was a lot of people who were just disenfranchised, neglected and bored. It rains there all the time. It's not like you can go outside and just relax. It's like you're inside being miserable all the time, so you get angry. So how do we let out the anger? Let's get a guitar and some drums and start going crazy."

“But, it wasn't going to be just Mud Honey, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice In Chains. There was more to it than that, so that's what I really had to look at and that's what I put together.”

Growing up in North California in San Francisco, Chris always knew he wanted to be a photographer, his undying ambition beginning at the age of 10. Savvy as ever and with strong desire to turn his dream into a reality, Chris had business cards made up when he was 12 and by age 16, had regular clients at modelling schools all over.

“I never went to class. It’s like, who needs to know English? I’m taking pictures, pictures that are worth a thousand words. I’ve written millions! That was my attitude and I was literally obsessed with it.”

A passion for fashion photography quickly upgraded to music, and following his own music tastes, Chris found himself travelling to Seattle where a handful of bands were about to redefine rock music forever. At the time, Chris’ friend was managing a relatively well-known band named Nirvana who had just got a new drummer, Dave Grohl. Chris reached out and offered to shoot the band for free which suited the struggling band perfectly.  From that moment on, Chris fell in love with Seattle. A city that was “not fond of outsiders” welcomed Chris with open arms and he quickly grew close to a regular clique of like-minded people; a mix of musicians, band managers, bookers and label managers.

In the year that followed, Nirvana would release Nevermind, an album no one was ready for, including the band. Ben Sheppard would replace Jason Everman in Soundgarden who would then go on to release Badmotorfinger, and Alice In Chains would explode internationally and become their label’s #1 priority. All of a sudden, a wave of gritty, society-ridden, misunderstood rock n rollers flooded Seattle – glam rock was officially out, and Seattle was on the map as one of the most important cities to be in at that time, and Chris was in the thick of it.

“It took over. Everything was happening. Red Hot Chilli Peppers were taking off and then all of a sudden there was the first Lollapalooza and then there's Seattle. It was just this alternative music thing that was really taking, because before that, it was all the hair bands and the heavy metal bands and they were all getting pushed aside.”

Chris would spend the next few years photographing everyone from L7 to Michael Hutchence, he would document Jane’s Addiction for two years and travel around the country capturing some of America's most infamous gigs. Chris was getting a type of front row access the world had not seen before. He became a trusted friend to the musicians first and a music photographer second.  

“They trusted me, I trusted them. They'd let me do whatever I want, when I want, how I wanted. And that's why I got amazing stuff.” 

“Back then, I was the only one with a camera or I mean, even in front of the stage. Nobody shot as much as I did. Nobody was around. I always was the one getting the stuff. It was a lot more difficult and people weren't as paranoid.”

Taking friends to shows became as important as shooting the shows themselves. It was the only thing he could do to make people truly understand what was going on at the time and the significance of what he was a part of. Even if it meant selling his guitar collection to travel to Hawaii for Jane’s Addiction’s last ever show.

“I sold half my guitar collection off, flew Beth (Chris Cornell’s girlfriend at the time) and myself there and said to Beth that I need a witness. I know this is going to be great. I need somebody there to back me up.”

Chris adopted the mentality of “investing in my future” where attending shows and actually “being there” was far more important than literally anything else. While many people will often put success down to luck, Chris will argue that he created his own luck, following his instincts wherever they took him and capturing the moments that will be talked about for years to come.

“I was always hustling, and I've always been just that. I've always been a hustler. I always tried to get to the right place and shoot the person. I didn't care if I was getting paid or not….I was so obsessed with capturing what was going on. I wasn't thinking about what would happen now, but I just had to be there.”

It’s been 30 years since the “grunge movement” and Chris still lives by this mentality. Having now been in Sydney for 7 months, Chris’ passion for shooting emerging artists and bands is still as strong as ever. And while social media may have changed the music photography game, Chris still reaches for that one great shot that will tell a thousand words and open the world up to whatever band he is shooting.

“I love shooting. I always have, always will. I'll do it till I die. My goal is to have another 50 years after this… I love shooting new artists because I feed off of their, what I like to call, excitement, their lack of experience because I'm [now] the bitter jaded guy.”

Jaded or not, there is no denying Chris Cuffaro’s talent and incredible knack for finding that special something inside his subjects. While Chris enjoys shooting anyone and everyone, he admits there are certain people he’s come across in his career that just have "it". What is it? When I asked him about his favourite Australian band, Chris answered with Lepers and Crooks. Lead singer Sam Baker has it.

“He's got it. He's pure talent. Kurt Cobain had it. Fiona Apple had it. Eddie Vedder has it. Michael Hutchence had it. Sam has it. I don't have it. You don't have it. We don't have it, but they have it. My job is to capture it. That's why I've always looked at it like I don't have it. Whatever they got, I don't have it, but my job is to capture it and make it look good.”

And while I may not have it (thank you for confirming Chris), I did thoroughly enjoy talking about all the people who do. Chris Cuffaro’s Greatest Hits: Grunge Exhibition opens this Thursday, May 1st at Blender Gallery in Paddington.


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