Putting the Nirvana in NFT: Photographer Charles Peterson digs into grunge archives for digital debut

Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain at Rebar in Seattle in a 1991 photograph by Charles Peterson. The image is one of several being offered as a non-fungible token. (Photo courtesy of Charles Peterson)

The look on Kurt Cobain’s face might just say it all — like someone in 1991 just explained to him what “non-fungible token” is going to mean in 2021.

For Charles Peterson, who captured the sneering Nirvana singer during the heyday of grunge (above), the look is just what it took to make it into the famed Seattle photographer’s first NFT drop, 30 years after he made the image.

The late Cobain is among a collection of rock personalities represented in the “Charles Peterson Grunge Years,” an NFT collection curated by Seattle-based Phosphene, on online portal of sorts which launched in May and helps connect artists and collectors in the crowded world of digital art marketplaces. Eleven of Peterson’s images are being offered for sale starting today on the OpenSea marketplace.

Kirsten Anderson, owner of the longtime Seattle art gallery Roq La Rue, started Phosphene with Art Min, a tech veteran, investor and onetime vice president of impact for Vulcan.

Anderson called Peterson a rock photography legend who shaped how the iconic Pacific Northwest “grunge years” of the late 1980s and early ’90s were perceived, and how it all turned the music industry on its head.

“Probably everyone has seen a Peterson photograph, whether they know it or not,” Anderson said. “And it’s really exciting to be able to showcase notable and influential artists, who in the past were really limited to the physical realm.”

Photographer Charles Peterson capturing himself in a mirrored selfie. (Photo courtesy of Charles Peterson)

Peterson, who makes his living off selling prints and licensing images, said he had been approached over the past year about offering his work in a new way. He watched with the rest of the art world and the tech-curious as NFTs upended traditional thinking when it came to art collection. The tokens are virtual certificates of ownership that are recorded as part of a blockchain computing network and have ignited a craze among collectors and cryptocurrency enthusiasts.

“I just couldn’t get a handle on what it means and the technicalities of it,” Peterson said. “It’s hard, as a starving artist my whole life, to get your head wrapped around where all this funny money is coming from.”

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The first collection of his NFT images is grouped around a visual theme celebrating the “insouciants,” who Peterson refers to as “the knuckleheads and goofballs who can be smart, funny and driven … who change shit up exactly because they don’t give a shit. … They remade music as we know it.”

Most of the photos haven’t been distributed much in the past and are not what Peterson considers his “greatest hits.”

Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder douses himself with wine at the Oakland Coliseum in 1997. (Photo courtesy of Charles Peterson)

His goal was to bring back some of the lightheartedness of grunge that attracted a lot of people in the early days. He called it his fondest memory of the time, seeing the sardonic sense of humor and wit while shooting such bands as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Mudhoney and more.

“It wasn’t all about this sort of grand mythology of tragedy and huge rock kind of thing,” Peterson said. “I kind of want to get back to just who these people were. Humor to me can often cut through and show someone’s real personality.”

Peterson, 57, has never had a digital shopping cart on his website and sells prints to people who connect with him directly via email. He might make eight to 12 prints a month, ranging in size from 8 1/2 x 11 inches, to 44 x 66 inches.

PREVIOUSLY: 30 years after his iconic photographs captured the rise of grunge, Charles Peterson turns his eye to Instagram

The NFTs will be digital PNG files — scanned negatives that are retouched by Peterson’s hand and to his standards. He approached the effort with knowledge from his longtime experience in the print world and he defends his ongoing ability to make money off his art, now turning the images into NFTs.

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“I kind of have to divorce myself from feeling guilty about commerce, or making my living off of somebody that’s a subject,” Peterson said. “Yeah, it’s them, but it wouldn’t be them in this form if it wasn’t for me and my art.”

Phosphene has completed a total of four drops of artwork since its launch. The platform is trying to set itself apart with both its curation and by helping artists enter the space and get placed in the right marketplaces. Sustainability is a key consideration as Phosphene purchases carbon offset credits to try to address the carbon emissions associated with the computing power required by the blockchain.

“We worked out some kinks around our business model and technology choices and think we found something that’s working,” Min said, adding that NFTs were hit with a bit of a bear market in June and July, but he’s now “encouraged with more and more people creating crypto wallets to buy NFTs.”

A proof sheet of Nirvana shot in Seattle in 1990. (Photo courtesy of Charles Peterson)

Among the first drop of images, Peterson is offering 10 of them as one-offs. But he’s also doing an edition of 10 for one of his proof sheets of Nirvana, featuring the original lineup of Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Chad Channing, shot in Seattle in 1990. Peterson fondly recalls the awkwardness of the shoot.

“It’s real sweet,” he said. “When I think of the band I always think of them as this lineup, because I wore out my copy of ‘Bleach’ when it first came out.”

That history, the memories and the ongoing appreciation for the art is what has connected Phosphene and Peterson more than three decades after the bands first assembled and the images were first made.

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Finding old fans and new in a still-developing marketplace will be the test.

“I guess we’re creating a historical archive here of something that people are still really gaga over,” Peterson said. “It could be a bust, it could be amazing. But you don’t know unless you try. Otherwise these are just going to sit here on my hard drive forever.”

Update, Sept. 2: A bidder by the name of @pranksy was the winner in Charles Peterson’s first NFT auction on Thursday, paying 3 ETH or about $11,000 for a photo of Nirvana from 1993. The image titled “Phone” features Kurt Cobain holding a giant mobile phone, something which Peterson said he’d never really seen before.

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