It’s one of the most iconic album artworks of all time but Spencer Elden, the baby who graced the cover of Nirvana Nevermind, has announced he is suing the band for their use of his image.
So you could say the Nevermind baby in fact minds quite a lot…?
In Spencer’s lawsuit lodged in a Los Angeles federal court this week, he names the former members of Nirvana including the estate of Kurt Cobain, photographer Kirk Weddle and album designer Robert Fisher and cites that the cover constitutes child pornography and “sexual exploitation”. In fact the wording of the lawsuit is even starker, declaring “Cobain chose the image depicting Spencer – like a sex worker – grabbing for a dollar bill that is positioned dangling from a fishhook in front of his nude body.”
Has anyone checked on Anne Geddes?
Spencer was only four months old in 1991 when his photo was taken by photographer Weddle for the Nirvana album cover. As the story goes, Spencer’s father Rick Elden had previously become friends with Weddle on other shoots before he was contacted to take part with about five other parents for the photoshoot.
In an interview with NPR, Rick recounted that he received a phone call from Weddle with an odd request – cop US$200 to come and throw Spencer into the pool. It was, Rick says, just a party in a pool at the time and no one who was there anticipated what they were getting involved in.
When Fisher received the proofs from Weddle some time later – it was Elden’s shot that was picked to go on and make music history as the Nirvana Nevermind Baby.
Even though Elden’s father was involved and present during the shoot and agreed to participate, he argues that at the time no one signed a release form authorising the use of Elden’s image for commercial or private use. Remind me to bring this one up when I decide to sue my parents for unauthorised use of my naked baby doodle at my 21st birthday.
What makes the case an odd one to launch now is that in previous years, Elden is on record in numerous interviews talking about his involvement in and participated in multiple recreations of the photoshoot celebrating the image. He’s boasted about using the context of the photo as a pickup line, saying to girls “I bet you’ve seen my penis”. He has Nevermind tattooed on his chest.
But who’s to say that all this isn’t an attempt to reclaim some sense of control over his body? Spencer is now an adult during a time where conversations around the nature of consent, revenge porn, and distribution of nudes create column inches. The argument that he was just a baby at the time may not stand up on its own either. Even if he was a baby, there’s a monumental difference between 30 of my closest friends and family copping a look at my winky and half a planet owning a copy of it. The feeling that your body isn’t your own must mess with your head.
There’s also the debate that this is a work of art and history is filled with artworks that contain naked children. Religious artworks are very fond of nude cherubs, although that fact is probably working in favour of the prosecution. I may have taken a crack at Australian photographer Anne Geddes at the start of his story but Spencer’s lawsuit does open up the discussion of parents who hand over their unsuspecting babies for commercial purposes. Do they really have the right just because you’re too young to say no? Especially if you’re naked?
If Spencer does win his lawsuit, and the album cover – which media outlets are already censoring – is deemed child pornography, then will anyone who owns the original Nirvana Nevermind album art be guilty of owning child pornography? Will every outlet that sold the album run the risk of being charged for the distribution of sexually explicit material depicting minors?
As of now, neither Apple or Spotify censored the original image. But don’t be surprised if you soon see a slightly different version as companies continue to become sensitive to the PR that surrounds these kinds of issues.
Spencer has, very honestly, stated that while a lot of other people have become rich from the distribution of this image, he hasn’t seen any financial benefit from it aside from the initial $200 paid to his father in 1991. Not saying that this is the sole motivation for the lawsuit (Spencer is only seeking $150K from each of those named which, in the grand scheme of things isn’t much at all) but you can almost understand that, watching everyone else get rich from a photo of you, you could feel a little left out.
Yet it’s hard not to miss the irony in this situation. Nevermind was – is – an album that encapsulated the apathy of an entire generation, its message the rejection of American excess their parents represented and the cover is a direct reference to how capitalism and profit are dangled before us from birth. Of course, Nirvana the band still got rich, the producers, the managers, the photographer and the designer all made some profit off it too. Except Spencer.
Let’s see how this goes.