Spencer Elden is renowned the world over for something he doesn’t even remember—a plunge he took 20 years ago, helping the rock band Nirvana achieve everlasting cult status.
You may not know his name but you’ve probably seen his picture—Spencer was the naked baby swimming after a fish-hooked dollar bill on the cover of the unforgettable Nirvana album Nevermind.
Released exactly 20 years ago today on Sept. 24, 1991, the album sold 30 million copies worldwide, catapulting Nirvana, then a relatively unknown Seattle band, to superstardom—and changing the face of rock ’n roll with the introduction of “grunge music.” Seldom has a single album had such lasting impact on popular culture. Nevermind, to quote Rolling Stone magazine, was “the album that guaranteed the 90s would not suck.”
Nirvana Baby Fame
Recently re-issued with new material for its 20th anniversary, Nevermind also made Spencer Elden famous. The photo of “the Nirvana baby,” as Spencer has been dubbed, is an iconic image that has been reproduced countless times, according to his father, Eagle Rock artist and specialty prop maker Rick Elden.
The elder Elden says that Spencer, now a 20-year-old artist himself, has literally done “hundreds of interviews” over the years about the Nevermind photo shoot, which took place when he was only a few months old. Spencer downplays his brush with history with disarming charm. “I’ve done about six [interviews],” he says, looking deadpan. “This interview is maybe number seven.”
The Photo Shoot
Twenty years ago, as Rick Elden recalls, he was attending Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, where Spencer is now enrolled in the fine art program. Rick had a studio in Old Town Pasadena—located between “a pawn shop and a sex shop” at a time when "the bohemians still lived there,” he says. To pay the rent, Rick shared the space with several artists, including photographer Kirk Weddle.
As it happened, Weddle had got a contract to photograph a baby underwater—and Rick agreed to let Weddle use Spencer as a model at the Rose Bowl Aquatics Center. Rick explains the infant Spencer’s apparently preternatural swimming ability thus: “Babies have a gag reflex. If you blow in their face, they hold their breath. I blew in Spencer’s face and put him in the water. Kirk was shooting 18 frames a second, so Spencer was in the water for about two seconds.”
Rick remembers that they took a break, did an additional one-second shoot, then went to (the now closed) Ernie Jr.’s Taco House in Pasadena. Usually, a photo shoot would result in a “bag of rolls of film,” points out Rick. "But Kirk just shot the one roll of Spencer and we had lunch and stared at that roll of film on the table.”
No one connected with the project had any idea they were on the verge of making history.
“We were like, 'Nir-who? Never-what?'" remembers Rick. At the time, he was shooting album covers for the Temptations and working with Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders. “We were just wondering if we were going to get paid,” says Rick.
They did. Spencer’s baby modeling fee: $200.
Shepard Fairey and the Nirvana Baby
A model release was never signed—but Rick always figured that Spencer would ultimately “come out ahead” because of the experience. “People would say, ‘I hired the Nirvana Baby,’” as Rick put it.
Rick’s prediction has proved true. Over the past several years, Spencer has been working at the Obey Giant design firm with Shepard Fairey, the by-now legendary creator of such iconic images as the Barack Obama “Hope” poster. Spencer, who managed to get his sketchbook to Fairey via a roundabout network of friends and family, was offered an internship. He never left.
On the Obey Giant website, there’s a “Welcome Spencer Elden!” message (now three years old) that Fairey posted soon after Spencer started at the design firm. The then-17-year-old had also just finished recreating the “Nirvana Baby” underwater pose for another photographer (Rick doesn't remember who the photograph was for). This time, Spencer was wearing swim trunks.
“So we have a new intern, Spencer Elden, who is the baby from the cover of Nirvana’s Nevermind,” Fairey’s post read. “Spencer is 17 now and it turns out that he is not only a fan of Obey but a good artist as well. He has been helping out, cutting stencils and working on tee shirt ideas. I think Spencer has a bright future and if he keeps working, the next time he re-creates the Nevermind cover they’ll have to lure him with at least a $20 bill.” (For the record, Spencer was paid considerably more than $20 for the second shoot.)
Nirvana Baby Perks
A fave Nirvana Baby perk for Spencer was getting his platinum Nevermind record signed by “Weird Al" Yankovic, who parodied both the album cover and its hit song, Smells Like Teen Spirit. Recently, Spencer also did a phone interview with radio “shock jock” Howard Stern, now a celebrated TV host. “I had mentioned in several interviews that I wanted to be on Howard Stern’s show and they called me up,” says Spencer. “I was on a ski lift at the time, though, so I kept cutting out.”
From Model to Artist
Spencer is a fan of Nirvana—famously led by the late Kurt Cobain—but he has never met any of the band members. Raised in Eagle Rock, he attended and took animation classes as a kid at the , says Renee Dominique, the Center’s director of development. Spencer cites Charles Burns, the creator of the award-winning graphic novel Black Hole, as among his artistic influences.
Whether it’s because of fame or family genes, the young artist seems to have a confidence beyond his years. Several months ago, he walked into the Sancho Gallery in Echo Park and secured a solo show of his work, which features multimedia materials and bold graphics rendered with a raw, Japanese manga-inspired edge.
Spencer's work has been featured at the and the artist is developing a line of t-shirts and jewelry, available at his Vampires One Day website, with his girlfriend Jarema Osofsky, whom he met at Obey Giant. (See one of Spencer's works based on her image in the photos above.)
Solar-powered Lasers and Album Covers
As for future plans, Spencer is interested in product and environmental design, especially alternative modes of building—such as using shipping containers—and energy sources.
“I have an idea to create a solar-powered sun laser that converts salt water into steam to generate energy,” says the self-described “studio rat”—he grew up in his father’s capacious work space filled with junkyard treasures that included discarded blow torches and scavenged time clocks.
But perhaps harkening back to his infant experience, Spencer also admits that he’d love to design album covers—never mind (pun intended) their waning power on the popular imagination in an age of Internet imagery.
On the other hand, imagine how another classic naked baby photo—with or without dollar bills—could go wildly viral.