Spencer Elden was 4 months old when photographed by a family friend in 1991, drifting naked in a swimming pool.
The photo, taken at the Rose Bowl Aquatics Center in Pasadena, Calif., Will be used that year for the cover of “Nevermind,” Nirvana’s flagship second album that helped define Gen X and propel the Seattle band. towards international fame.
In the decades that followed, Elden appeared to celebrate his role on the classic cover, recreating the moment of the album’s 10th, 17th, 20th, and 25th birthdays, but not nude.
“It’s cool but weird to be a part of something so important that I don’t even remember,” he said in a 2016 interview with the New York Post, in which he posed while taking the album cover at 25 years old.
Now, however, Elden, 30, has filed a federal lawsuit against the estate of Kurt Cobain, the musician’s former bandmates David Grohl and Krist Novoselic, and Cobain’s widow Courtney Love, among others. He claimed that they, along with Geffen Records, who released “Nevermind”, took advantage of his nude image. It is one of the best-selling records of all time, with at least 30 million copies sold worldwide.
“The defendants knowingly produced, possessed and advertised commercial child pornography depicting Spencer, and they knowingly received value in return for it,” according to the lawsuit, which was filed in federal court in California on Tuesday.
Elden suffered “permanent harm” as a result of his association with the album, including emotional distress and a “lifetime loss of the ability to earn an income.” The lawsuit did not provide details of the losses and said they would be disclosed at trial.
Elden, an artist living in Los Angeles County, has been in therapy for years to figure out how the album cover has affected him, said Maggie Mabie, one of his attorneys.
“He hasn’t met anyone who hasn’t seen his genitals,” she said. “It’s a constant reminder that he has no privacy. His private life is of no value to the world.
The lawsuit says Elden is asking for $ 150,000 from each of the 15 people and companies named in the lawsuit, including Kurt Weddle, the photographer who took the photo. Weddle did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Elden’s photo was chosen from dozens of baby photos Weddle photographed for the album cover, which Cobain planned to show a baby underwater.
Weddle paid Elden’s parents $ 200 for the photo, which was later edited to show the baby chasing a dollar, hanging from a hook.
“They were trying to create controversy because controversy sells,” Mabie said. “The point wasn’t just to create a threatening image, but to cross the line and they did it in a way that exposed Spencer so they could take advantage of it.”
She said her client sometimes agreed when the band, media and fans asked her to recreate the photo as an adult, but he ultimately realized that it only resulted in “the picture. of him as a baby being further exploited “.
Representatives for Cobain’s estate did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment. Representatives for Grohl, Love and Geffen Records, now part of Universal Music Group, did not respond to the messages.
Elden, who declined to comment on his lawsuit, said in a short documentary in 2015 that the album cover “opened doors” for him. For example, he worked with Shepard Fairey, the artist sued by The Associated Press for using an image of Barack Obama for his play “Hope.”
Over the years, he has expressed his ambivalence about the cover.
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“It would be nice to have a quarter for each person who saw my baby penis,” he said in a 2016 New York Post interview.
In another interview that year, he said he was angry people were still talking about it.
“Recently I was like, ‘What if I didn’t go along with having my fucking penis shown to everyone?’ I didn’t really have a choice, ”Elden told GQ Australia.
He said his feelings about the cover started to change “just a few months ago when I contacted Nirvana to see if they wanted to be part of my art show.”
Elden said he had been referred to managers and lawyers.
“Why am I always on their cover if I’m not that important?” ” he said.
Elden “asks Nirvana to do what Nirvana should have done 30 years ago and write up the pictures of her genitals for the album cover,” Mabie said.
This trial is not a typical case of child pornography, said Mary Graw Leary, a professor at the Columbus School of Law at the Catholic University of America.
“A child’s nudity alone is not the definition of pornography,” she said. “The typical child pornography that is seen in law enforcement and prosecuted in courts can be violent. The children are young and it is very graphic.
But there are factors under federal law that allow a judge or jury to determine whether a photo of a minor “constitutes lascivious exposure of the genitals,” including whether they were the focal point of the process. a photo, said Graw Leary.
This part of the law “gives the court a little more leeway,” she said. “It is not a business with easy answers.”