When Spencer Elden was four months old, he was photographed by a family friend drifting naked in a swimming pool. The year was 1991, and little did anyone know at the time that that photo would soon become the face of one of the most popular albums of the 90s—if not of all time—after it was picked up by legendary grunge group ‘Nirvana’ and used as the album cover for their second album, entitled Nevermind. The album went on to sell over 30 million copies, making it one of the best selling records of all time, garnering Nirvana international fame and defining an entire era of music.
But for the rest of his life, that single swim which Elden took in infancy continues to follow him, and now, at the age of thirty, he isn’t too pleased about that. Recently, Elden has launched a federal lawsuit against the estate of Kurt Cobain, as well as Cobain’s former bandmates, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic, and his widow, Courtney Love, among others, according to the New York Times. The lawsuit alleges that these parties, along with Geffen Records, profited off of his naked image, and that Elden has suffered ‘permanent harm’ because of his association with the record. The lawsuit also alleges that Elden has suffered a ‘lifelong loss of income-earning capacity,’ although it did not provide any details about these losses.
Until the lawsuit was filed, Spencer Elden seemed to celebrate his part in the album cover, repeatedly recreating the cover for the album’s 10th, 17th, 20th, and 25th anniversaries— although he was fully clothed in these recreations. Elden also sports a tattoo bearing the album’s name— sprawled across a substantial part of his upper chest. He has also done many interviews over the years, although many times he expressed mixed feelings about the album cover. “It’s hard not to get upset when you hear how much money was involved,” explained back in 2016. “(When) I go to a baseball game and think about it: ‘Man, everybody at this baseball game has probably seen my little baby penis,’ I feel like I got part of my human rights revoked.”
Back in 2008, Spencer Elden’s father recounted the photoshoot in an NPR interview, explaining that the family was paid $200 for the baby to be photographed. “We just had a big party at the pool, and no one had any idea what was going on!” The family allegedly totally forgot about the photoshoot until, three months later, they saw the cover of the Nevermind album blown up on the wall of Tower Records in Los Angeles. Several months later, Elden allegedly received a platinum album and a teddy bear from Geffen Records, the most compensation that he ever received.
While Elden seems to have always been conflicted about the picture, his feelings changed rapidly in recent months, after he began reaching out to the band to no avail. He invited the surviving members of Nirvana to his art show, and was instead referred to managers and lawyers. In a recent interview with GC Australia Elden asked: “Recently I’ve been thinking, ‘What if I wasn’t OK with my freaking penis being shown to everybody?’ I didn’t really have a choice.”
While it is unclear if a federal judge will agree with what the lawsuit alleges, it seems as though at least photographer Kirk Weddle, the man who took the photo, is sympathetic to Elden’s case. “He feels that everybody made money off it and he didn’t,” the photographer said. “I think he deserves something. But it’s always the record labels that make the money.”