By the time Shelli Hyrkas reached adolescence in Aberdeen, Washington, in the mid‐1980s, the two industries that had brought her family to the Pacific Northwest as settlers had become shadows of themselves. Fishing and logging had provided five generations of her family – going back to the 1850s – a proud livelihood from the abundant rivers and forests of this rich region in southwest Washington. But a series of economic depressions and the overuse of resources had clobbered the region.
During Shelli’s teen years, Aberdeen wasn’t quite a ghost town, but it felt haunted and drained – an atmosphere that worked its way on Shelli and the other teenagers in her circle of friends. Throughout much of the country, the cultural vibe of the 1980s was go‐go materialism, glitter and a sense that with broad enough shoulder pads and big enough hair, a person could achieve the brightest, shiniest life imaginable.
The much-vaunted trickle-down economy preached by the Reagan White House hadn’t made its way to towns like Aberdeen and, as is so often the case, young people were the first to draw attention to the bounding gap between the ideal and the reality. Their futures weren’t shiny and bright; their hometowns were blighted, their prospects dim, their options constrained – and they knew it.
In the mid-80s, they listened to the same loud, raucous arena band music every other teen in the country was hearing through the headphones their parents knew would make them deaf. Aerosmith and Van Halen blared and heads banged with their raucous rhythm. Wherever Shelli and her friends gathered, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath provided the soundtrack. One of the friends who shared her musical tastes was a funny, clever boy who sat behind her in art class. His name was Kurt Cobain, and as they hung out listening to very loud, very metal rock, neither of them had any way of knowing that a much different fate was waiting just a year or two down the road.
Though the bustling ‘80s economy wasn’t making its way to their hometown, music from the outside world certainly was. The breakneck rhythms, political cynicism and hard‐edged pessimism of bands like the Ramones and the Sex Pistols never made it to the American mainstream. But through time‐honored adolescent cultural transmission (“Have you heard this?” “Listen to those lyrics!”) the new musical form called “punk,”with its boundary-‐and-‐button pushing sound, helped connect young people throughout the world, including Kurt Cobain and another of Shelli’s classmates, a hilarious, lively upperclassman named Krist Novoselic. Punk rock was precisely the right music for young people who rejected the hypocrisy and blithe nostrums of the Just‐Say‐No era. Critics called punk music a subculture, and in it, out there on the fringes, Shelli, Kurt, Krist and friends had found their community.
In 1985, Shelli and Krist began hanging out together as more than friends, and in 1986, they moved together to Phoenix for a few months, where Shelli encountered an environment and aesthetic radically different from the that of her native Northwest. By fall 1986, they had returned to Aberdeen, where Krist and Kurt started experimenting musically together and trying out a variety of band names. Shelli and Krist soon moved to Tacoma, where the band – by this time officially called Nirvana – would practice in the basement. As she listened to the music developing more and more into a sound that was unmistakably their own, Shelli faced a dawning realization: These guys – her guys – were really, really good.
In 1989, Nirvana recorded its first album, “Bleach,”for indie recording label Sub Pop. That fall, Nirvana toured Europe with TAD, another Seattle band on the Sub Pop label, and Shelli flew to London in December to meet Krist and Kurt – her first time ever on an airplane. At the end of the tour, Krist and Shelli stayed in London for a few days, then navigated their way by ferry and train to Yugoslavia, Krist’s family’s country of origin, and still home to a number of relatives. It was a heady adventure – being young and ready to see the world, but challenged to figure out train schedules and fares in unfamiliar languages and currencies. Shelli found the experience unlike anything she had ever seen or experienced before.
The countryside was beautiful, the languages unfamiliar, and everywhere she looked, she found an awe‐inspiring new sight upon which to focus her camera. The cascade of sights, sounds and smells thrilled Shelli, but only in retrospect did she realize what an amazing intersection with history they had experienced. Even as they traveled from London to Yugoslavia, the Berlin Wall was being dismantled. As she and Krist headed back to London, they heard that revolution had come to Romania and dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu had been overthrown. Economic and political unrest was building in Yugoslavia and would lead in less than two years to war and revolution. Europe was changing fast and the two young people from Seattle were, at least briefly, immersed in that dynamism.
Life on a personal level was changing at light speed as well, for Krist and for the band. Within two years, the band had recorded its iconic album, “Nevermind,” with the enormous hit, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and Nirvana broke into popular culture like a thunderclap. Shelli quit her day job and began touring around the U.S. and Europe with the band, selling tee shirts, seeing the world, and trying to deal with the abundant excess that comes with that level of money and fame. With the band’s runaway success, life changed dramatically (and in minutely well‐documented ways), culminating with Kurt’s suicide in 1994.
It seemed for a while that an entire generation of young adults (whom the media had dubbed “Generation X”) was grieving the loss of their star. For Shelli, the loss was much more personal – a large part of her youth had been intertwined with Kurt and the rest of the band, as friend and fan and family.
The tragic times aren’t what Shelli focuses on or remembers most clearly, though. As she looks at the photos she took during those days, she recalls the escapades and exhilaration of kids from a very small town embarked on a very large adventure.
One day in 1986, when Shelli and Krist were living in Phoenix, Shelli found a $20 bill on the ground. With the logic of youth, the couple decided to fill up their VW van with 69‐cent gas, make sandwiches with whatever they could find in the refrigerator and head to Mexico. This serendipitous trip turned out to be a pivotal moment in her photography. She and Krist camped on the beach in the Sonoran town of Rocky Point, on the Gulf of California. As they explored the laid-‐back beach town, they wandered into a nearby store.
Shelli began to look closely at the paint and the patina, and at one spot, she counted, like the rings of some ancient, colorful tree, at least 10 different layers of paint. All these decades of usefulness struck her as practical and beautiful in a way she had never considered. She saw how little people had, and how little they seemed to need, to live satisfying lives. And all around her, she saw an absolute celebration of color – a brave new world to this veteran of the subdued hues of the Pacific Northwest. She began to look at imperfection in a new way and realized that things – and people – aren’t beautiful despite their imperfections; flaws make the person or thing authentic and real. Slick, perfect surfaces don’t offer much to hold onto; surfaces that are rough and layered allow a way in and an opportunity to connect.
During the time her life was entwined with Nirvana, Shelli never considered the photos she was shooting as “documentary photography.” She had been interested in photography since she was in elementary school, but at that time had no formal training other than a book on “photographic tips” she had found when she was 10. She had an instinct for the moment, however, and loved photography’s capacity for capturing an instant in time that could never come again.
Having a camera at the ready to capture Nirvana’s rehearsals, backstage shenanigans and raucous performances seemed like the most natural thing in the world. She saw herself, not as a behind‐the‐scenes rock photographer, just as a friend taking photos of friends who were off on a lark called “recording’ and “touring” and “becoming famous.”
Her approach to shooting these intimate images echoed the epiphany she had experienced on that trip to Mexico, as well as the values that had attracted her to punk rock – that life doesn’t have to be smooth, shiny and well‐managed to be worthwhile. The important thing as a photographer, she realized, was to capture the moment and to never let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Touring with the band afforded Shelli a chance to see much more of the world than she likely would ever have been able to see on her own. She was amazed at layer upon layer of paint and patina, the history and visual richness of places so much older than anything she had ever known.
As Shelli grew more serious about her photography, she began to take classes and workshops at Seattle’s Photographic Center Northwest. For her thesis project, she returned to Aberdeen to document the town and the familiar haunts she’d known. Though the visits back home meant welcome reconnection with family and old friends, they also brought waves of sadness at the disintegration she saw all around her – the result of a crashed economy that had been focused too narrowly on lumber and fishing. Her haunting black and white images of her hometown capture this sense of nostalgia and decline.
In 1998, Shelli attended a lecture in Seattle by Alberto Korda, the famous Cuban photographer who documented the Cuban revolution and whose iconic image of Che Guevara has been reproduced the world over to promote everything from tee shirts to revolution to vodka. His insistence that the most important role of photography is to just get the shot, regardless of imperfections in lighting or composition, affirmed Shelli’s own inclination toward that of‐the‐moment intimate approach. Along with a group of other students, she visited Cuba for a photographic tour and additional study with Korda. For one who had done most of her shooting in the filtered light of the Pacific Northwest, the way the brilliant Caribbean light created dramatic, high‐contrast images was both a revelation and a challenge. She responded by shooting roll after roll of black and white images, capturing ordinary images of a life completely exotic to her.
In 1996, Shelli and Krist returned to Mexico with their friends Kerry, Sandy and Glenn Green, where Shelli once again fell in love with the textures, colors and patina of the place. Everyplace she went, she carried along her plastic Holga camera, whose signature light leaks and vignette focus captured the dream‐like scenes and colors so rich they deserved their own bank accounts. The Holga with its trademark imperfections was the perfect instrument to capture both the visual feast, as well as the surrealistic sense this sensory deluge created in her perceptions.
Back in Seattle, a professor’s off‐handed remarks turned out to be prescient advice. “Never throw out your negatives,”the professor said. “You may go back five years later and love something you didn’t even see before. Hang onto it and give your work some time to season.”
She remembered that statement when she was asked for images to loan for the exhibit “Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses” at Seattle’s Experience Music Project Museum. She worked up the resolve to go back through the scrapbooks and archives she’d begun creating at the beginning of her relationship with the hopeful young musicians in Aberdeen. Back in the mid‐90s, when things had gone so dramatically and suddenly south, she had pushed everything from those days as far away as possible. Now, with the kindness of time’s passage, she found herself going back through the photos with nostalgia and more happiness than sorrow. Her photos of the band helped add a personal, inside view of Nirvana for the exhibit, which opened in 2012 and has been extended several times since.
The band’s story, seen through her camera, is her story as well. As famous as Nirvana became, and as culture‐rattling as their music turned out to be, to her, Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic were family. Much has been made in the media about Kurt’s brooding, drug‐addicted fatalism, but Shelli knew him long before a single reporter had thrust a mic in his face and insisted on a comment. She knows, and her images reflect, that, although those early days weren’t all sunshine and roses, they were the exuberant days of youth – a bunch of small‐town kids goofing on the glitzy aesthetic of their times and working hard at creating honest music that was authentic to their experience and view of the world.