The Seattle Music Project, a photography exhibit in the Men’s Shop at our flagship Downtown Seattle store, is still open through this weekend.
[UPDATE: The exhibit has been extended through October.]
Although it encompasses Northwest musicians (and photographers) from the 1960s through today, the exhibit—featuring hundreds of photos, songs, posters, flyers, backstage passes and more—was curated by local photographer Lance Mercer, whose career came into focus during the early-’90s (don’t call it grunge) Seattle music scene.
We talked with Mercer about the exhibit, his inspirations, and why perfection—and politeness—are overrated.
[This photo, and photo of Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder above, © Lance Mercer.]
MEN’S SHOP DAILY: What was your role in the Seattle Music Project exhibit, and how did it all come about?
LANCE MERCER: “Pete Nordstrom and I had coffee last winter…He wanted to have a photo exhibit in the store [incorporating] Seattle music. It was more of a grunge, ’90s vibe at first, but I was really inspired by this photo by Jini Dellaccio, who’s a big hero of mine. She shot all the early garage stuff. I started looking at her photo of the Sonics, the very iconic shot of them on the beach, and the clothes they’re wearing are very pertinent to today: the Beatle boots, the Mod [look], the peacoats and parkas.
“So the idea became: Let’s cover the last five decades of Northwest music, as it relates to fashion. I mean, Nordstrom is a Seattle landmark. I used to hang out at the [Nordstrom] coffee shop in the ’80s, with guys from Pearl Jam, Mother Love Bone…Bands have shopped at Nordstrom forever. Even Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart—they bought a lot of those clothes, like the whole gypsy look from their Little Queen era, at Nordstrom.
“Thanks to the Nordstrom creative team, we brainstormed and kept building on this idea—with ephemera, and music, and photography, and flyers—all this stuff. The process incorporated the things that I love: Music, photography, the people in Seattle, the connections I’ve made over the last 25-30 years—I was able to really put all those things to use. And man, I love going through people’s archives…That was kind of my job over the last six or seven months, just gathering and acquiring all this amazing content—and I love it.”
[Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, photo © Lance Mercer.]
MEN’S SHOP DAILY: How did you get started in photography?
LANCE MERCER: “I started going to shows when I was about 13. I was mainly going to punk shows, and the punk scene in Seattle at the time, around 1980 or ’81, was really small.
“The energy I was getting from those shows was something that I really latched onto, and one thing that really changed the course of my whole career path was the discovery of the Ramones, the Clash—and the photography that went along with it: Abrasive, not technically proficient, but very fitting [to that style of music]. I realized I didn’t have to be Ansel Adams to capture photography the way that I wanted to.
“The cover of London Calling by the Clash [photographed by Pennie Smith] had a huge impact on me—it was out of focus, it was just weird, but it captured the essence of that band. It’s very rare when that happens, when somebody can look at a photo and get that same feeling, like they were there.
“And when I was going to all these shows, that’s what I was trying to capture by taking photos: the feeling of being there. Still to this day, throughout my career, I’m still trying to capture that. I don’t think I’ve ever perfected it, and that’s one thing that keeps me going.”
[Photo © Lance Mercer.]
MEN’S SHOP DAILY: When did you realize that doing what you loved—shooting shows, hanging out with bands—could become a career?
LANCE MERCER: “Just continuing what I was already doing, I became friends with some of the guys in Green River, Malfunkshun…and as they pursued their careers, I kind of just tagged along. As they gained notoriety and went on to Mother Love Bone, and eventually Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and all these things, I was kind of along for the ride.
“I would say it was definitely right place, right time, but also being pretty driven. I wanted to be Annie Leibovitz shooting the Stones, I wanted to be Robert Frank documenting people and events. It all kind of accumulated to being able to go on tour with Pearl Jam—just as a friend, and eventually becoming, for lack of a better term, their official photographer. That was ’91 or ’92, and I’ve been self-employed as a photographer ever since.”
[Photo © Charles Peterson.]
MEN’S SHOP DAILY: What makes Seattle a special place for music?
LANCE MERCER: “Since we were up here in the corner, and [touring bands] never came up here, we kind of created our own scene. There was some stuff here that was not happening anywhere else, and you could just kind of feel it. It’s been said, it’s cliche, but the weather definitely had a big influence on it—dark days, long winters, people locking themselves in the basement—and the music had that same vibe.
“Even the Sonics and the Wailers, and the old photos I’ve been looking at, are very representational of Seattle. It can be dark and gloomy here. Having traveled a lot, I know every scene has had their own experience based on where they’re from, and their own uniqueness—Athens, Minneapolis, there are very distinct sounds that come from there. And I think a lot of this kind of slowed-down, heavier music was a result of the vibe here in Seattle.”
[Photo © Charles Peterson.]
MEN’S SHOP DAILY: What’s been your most memorable music experience, as a fan?
LANCE MERCER: “Just being the impressionable teenager that I was, the Ramones at Eagles Auditorium, in like ’84. The Damned. Tom Waits at the 5th Avenue Theater. Those are pretty unforgettable experiences.
“And Iggy Pop at the Showbox, way back in the day. Everything right now is really safe—thank you, and we’re glad to be here, and want to thank the promoter and all these people—but at that show, Iggy Pop came out and scared the crap out of me, to the point where I was frozen and couldn’t move, and had to stay and watch the rest to see what the hell was going to happen. Throwing the mic stand out, antagonizing the crowd. That danger level, I haven’t seen since—and I want that. It’s a feeling. It doesn’t have to make you feel good. So that really changed some perspective for me.”
[Photo © Charles Peterson.]
MEN’S SHOP DAILY: You’ve branched out over the years to many kinds of photography—but would you say shooting live shows is still your favorite?
LANCE MERCER: “Absolutely. I’m a little older, so I don’t have the physical capacity I used to. I mean you have to remember that shooting live back in the ’90s was like being a war photographer. I had the experience of being in punk clubs, being right up front, getting slammed around—but shooting festivals like Lollapalooza, or the Endfest, I mean—yeah, it was insane.
“But once that kind of synergy between the audience and the band ‘clicks’—people who play in bands know that feeling, and people who are at shows—it’s kind of unexplainable, and trying to capture it with photography is not easy. There’s nothing like it.”
The Seattle Music Project is an exhibit of photos and ephemera commemorating five decades of Northwest music. Curated by renowned local photographer Lance Mercer, the exhibit resides in the Men’s Shop of our Downtown Seattle store, now through the end of October.
[Additional photos above by Charles Peterson. Individuals featured do not endorse Nordstrom.]