Artist Spotlight: JJ Gonson

JJ GonsonPortrait of Kurt Cobain by JJ Gonson.

Over JJ Gonson’s shoulder at Diesel Café is a striking photograph she took of a now-deceased friend, Kurt.

She first met him in 1989 at Green Street Station, a now-defunct venue steps away from the actual T stop in Jamaica Plain. Kurt and his bandmates crashed at Gonson’s apartment after their set, rolling out foam mattress toppers on the floor underneath her record collection. They woke up to cartons of strawberry Quik and the constant click of Gonson’s ever-faithful Minolta camera. The band didn’t mind the photos—in fact, they enjoyed her company, and a friendship was formed.

The photo on Diesel’s wall was taken outside of Gonson’s apartment a year later. Kurt’s band, Nirvana, had packed the ManRay Nightclub in Cambridge the night before, but under the gaze of Gonson’s lens, he was just a friend of hers on a day off from work, boyish and smirking as he mockingly held up a crucifix underneath a Melvins sticker in Nirvana’s van.

“It’s a very gentle photo. I took pictures all the time and he did it back to me, so he was used to it,” Gonson says. “Kurt and I were friends, and you can see it. He’s not posed … he’s like, ‘Ugh, you’re taking a picture of me.’ I have him doing that face at me multiple times.”

The band continued the tour later that day, loping back up to its native Washington to finish writing an album that would permanently redefine the band and the alternative music scene at large. The album would be called “Nevermind.” Upon its release in 1991, Kurt Cobain was forever enshrined in the annals of rock superstardom.

Gonson spent the next decade and a half capturing the genesis of future rock icons with the unflinching intimacy of artist portraiture at a time when few rock photographers were female-identifying. Although she is critical of her own work—a habit she picked up during her photography studies at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts—pointing out photo coloration and her occasional disregard of the golden ratio, her photography is simply awe-inspiring both as documents of rock history and for their appearances in the pages of publications including Creem, Spin, and Rolling Stone.

“I’m a pure documentarian, nothing artsy about it,” Gonson says. “You just have to capture their soul.”

Her work in music photography began in line at a Husker Dü show outside of the Paradise in 1985, when Mike Gitter, founder of hardcore fanzine “xXx,” asked if she’d shoot for the publication. He was impressed by the strength of her enthusiasm and the trusty Minolta camera hanging around her neck. Soon, Gonson was on assignment snapping shots of Jane’s Addiction flying kites in Boston Common and rising acts like The Descendents.

“I had them all sitting on the fire escape for a good 10 to 15 minutes before [founding member Bill Stevenson] showed up,” she recalls of the Descendants shoot. “I took one picture and he walked away. The best shot, hands down, is the photo of them being like, ‘Dude, you just got here!’”

JJ Gonson

Photo of Elliott Smith by JJ Gonson.

Next to the image of Cobain is an intimate shot of singer/songwriter (and, at one point, Gonson’s romantic partner) Elliott Smith playing his guitar in a green room. She estimates the photo was taken at the Viper Room in Los Angeles, judging by Smith’s hair color.

“That’s how I always identify the time periods,” she adds with a laugh. “We went to Disney World with Virgin Records when we were negotiating [a record deal], and I think his hair was that color.”

Meanwhile, Megadeth is lounging in a hotel a couple paces down, while Jane’s Addiction singer Perry Farrell sways in the next frame, a bottle of wine sloshing in hand on the TT The Bear’s stage. To have a conversation with Gonson about photography is to enter a free-form history lesson of Boston music history and an artistic brainstorming session that is constantly brewing after decades of self doubt.

“I have believed for my entire life that, even though I think and believe in my work as art, the world doesn’t,” Gonson admits. “I have never felt comfortable showing it in any way other than kind of low-res editorial, selling it to magazines once in a while.”

Gonson’s portfolio is most potent in its humanizing of touring musicians, particularly of Oregon band Heatmiser, which featured a young Elliott Smith as vocalist. Smith, although known for his insularly aching solo material, is jokingly flirty as he purses his lips in one of Gonson’s most famous press photos of the band, arms raised high above his head to further show off the ridiculous bear suit top he has on. Having been the band’s press photographer and manager, Gonson has a wealth of unreleased shots depicting Heatmiser’s highs, lows, and, most commonly, the moments of being “on the side of the roads with nothing but wasteland behind them.” One such candid shot depicts Smith reading quietly in the van next to bandmate Tony Lash, appearing more like strangers on a bus than bandmates.

“People think of touring and rock-and-roll as this rough-and-tumble, crazy, sex-and-drugs life when, in fact, it’s hours and hours of quiet scenarios,” Gonson says. “[The Heatmiser photographs] speak to me because it shows … how they’re are really separate from each other on the road.”

Gonson left the world of film photography behind in 2004 after her Minolta “got fried” during a rainy assignment covering a horse show for the Martha’s Vineyard Times. The move toward point-and-shoot digital cameras was already well underway in print journalism.

“I never replaced it,” Gonson says of her Minolta. “I had cheap, digital cameras at the time, and the Times preferred them because the paper was so low-res, it didn’t matter. I never graduated to a hi-res camera … I don’t know, it just feels too easy, maybe, like there’s no point to it if everyone’s doing it.”

JJ Gonson

Photo of Marginal Man by JJ Gonson.

Gonson’s love of music has stayed alive through her ownership of music venue ONCE Somerville and adjoining catering company Cuisine En Locale, but her photography lives on in the entrance ways of venues, the rooms of the Verb Hotel in downtown Boston, and in publications looking for photos of her rockstar friends before fame called.

“I think it’s dumb luck and humanity,” Gonson says regarding the renewed interest in her work. “I have always thought of this as illustrative and editorial, but I’ve also felt I wasn’t a good enough artist to reach out to a publisher and say, ‘I have three or four books ready to go.’ That’s just not how my brain works.”

Even so, her spark for photography hasn’t entirely died. At the start of our conversation, she mentions an idea for a trilogy of photo books; by the end, the number has ballooned to six.

“Maybe my fifth book will be my iPhone photos of bands at my venue,” she brainstorms at one point with a smirk, showing me a snap of the Old 97’s from a recent night. A blue light saturates the frame and, she notes, it’s a bit blurry, but she’s content. It’s a nice piece of art, we both agree.