elliott smith jj gonson 25th anniversary photo book

The Story Behind These Never-Before-Seen Photos of Elliott Smith

The legacy of Elliott Smith spans haunting lyrics, fingerpicking chops, and a variety of musical influences. To commemorate the 25th anniversary of his self-titled album’s release, the label, Kill Rock Stars, has released a special set that includes a photo book featuring “previously unseen” photos by JJ Gonson, as well as other heartfelt memorabilia and recollections from that time.

We’re obviously excited about the remastering work that has gone into the collection, but the book is an exceptional piece of art. For fans, it’s a collector’s item. For the people who knew and worked with Smith over two decades ago, it’s a beautiful look into the life of a friend who tragically passed in 2003.

To learn more, we chatted with the folks at Kill Rock Stars. The following Q&A is a combination of email responses from the amazing team that worked on the 25th-anniversary collection. Here’s a quick rundown of who chimed in or was mentioned in the chat:

  • JJ Gonson: Photographer
  • Portia Sabin: President of Music Business Association
  • Slim Moon: Founder and President of Kill Rock Stars
  • Rob Jones: Lead designer on the project and Vice President Label Operations of Kill Rock Stars
  • Larry Crane: Recording engineer (and more)

Discogs: Can you tell me more about the book project, how it came to be, and why it’s included in this 25th-anniversary collection?

Portia Sabin: I wanted to put out the 25th-anniversary edition of this album, and in the past, we’d always suffered from not having enough photos of Elliott and his world. Because JJ took the cover photo, I reached out to her to ask if she might have any more from that time period, and she said she had a number of them that no one had ever seen. We cooked up the idea of a photo book on the spot.

Discogs: What’s the story behind these never-before-seen-photos? What point of time are we looking back at?

JJ Gonson: Portland, Oregon in the early- to mid-1990s was a sort of legendary time. There is a whole, successful series about it (Portlandia) because it was so oddly unique. A time of irony. The perfect storm of inexpensive living, creative young people, and a time of political hope for the young liberals after a childhood full of fear of Reagan’s star wars. We were energized by our youth and took full advantage of being able to survive on part-time wages, living in big houses no one wanted to heat, and practicing in their basements, with the ability to take breaks and go on tour. Rent was cheap and venues were gracious with their time and space. It was brilliant art on tap. I had just finished a degree in art education and went west in search of a teaching job I never found. What I did find was a world full of fantastic people to document, so I did.

Discogs: Do you have a personal favorite shot(s) from the book? What is it?

JJ Gonson: This is such a good question. My art is close to me, and it is hard to choose one. Each tells its own story, and those stories are all valid in their own ways. I almost choose one of him on tour, peeking out from a loft in the van, but I am going to choose the first, unseen photo we released when we announced the book. It’s a close-up portrait, black and white; my favorite film, Tri-x 400. Elliott is lightly touching the edge of the hat he wore with dedication as he smiles into the camera. [See the feature image of this article.]

It is a personal moment. A friend tipping his hat to me, to the person who had a camera in his face constantly but who he tolerated because we were dear to each other and he loved my work, just as I loved his. I respond to that this is what I would call a “successful portrait”, in my conventionally educated in art school brain (framed properly, exposed properly), and also to that it is a particularly intimate moment. I don’t mean intimate in a physical way, I mean that you can see that he is connecting and happy. I love to show him happy.

elliott smith coffee jj gonson 25th anniversary photo book

Discogs: What makes you excited about being a part of this project?

JJ Gonson: I started taking pictures with a Kodak Instamatic camera before I remember. I have photos of my grandparents in Florida, and they passed away when I was still very young. My grandmother gifted me with a middle-end Minolta SLR for my bat mitzvah, so that was when I was about 13, and I adored it. I went to Harvard Square and took photos in my favorite yarn shop of the colors and shapes of the skeins on the shelves. I took photos of my friends at school and my family at home. When I got into high school, I was a “Master of the Guild,” which meant I had a key to the school darkroom. I started taking photos for magazines when I was 18. I graduated from high school into the darkrooms at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and ultimately got my [education] degree from Tufts to teach photography.

I see in photographs: light and shadow, and framed in a 35mm aspect ratio. If I had a camera installed in my brain I would be blissfully happy. All I have ever wanted is to show photos to people. I am proud of my art. A coffee table art book is a dream come true and it is just the way I want it to look because Rob Jones is a fucking genius. I hope that you love these photos and the people who buy the book love the photos and that I can show more photos to people. Maybe next time it will be ladies of the second wave hardcore and pre-grunge bands of the mid-1980s and early 1990s. Or Nirvana.

Discogs: What do you personally think is the most significant thing about the self-titled album hitting 25 years?

Slim Moon: I was really happy that Portia and [Kill Rock Stars were] working on this release when the time came for me to come back to run the label again. This was the first album I did together with Elliott and also marked a big departure for KRS. We were known for a certain type of punk rock, but to my mind, this album is as punk as anything. It’s great that [Larry Crane] got a chance to remaster this with the newest technology and an intense amount of love and care.

When this record first came out it was a tough sell to get college radio to play it and a tough sell to get writers who covered indie label music to write about it. Honestly, I think most college radio and writers and editors never even reviewed it. It was his next album that started to get the attention that Elliott’s music deserved, so this reissue is a chance to present the music again. I firmly believe that all three of his first albums, the ones he made in Portland, are equally terrific and powerful and successfully rewrote the book on what indie rock could be as well as what acoustic folk could sound like. The 25th-anniversary celebration is also a chance to reach a new generation of fans for this record, and a chance for fans of all ages to see wonderful photos that really bring across what a delightful goofball he was as a person.

JJ Gonson: Well, obviously, for me, personally, it means I am 25 years older. Which is just weird. I probably am also speaking from a place that Elliott’s friends all feel when I say that I’m not at all surprised that people are still listening to and wanting to hear more of his music because I knew (we all knew) that he was an unparalleled songwriting master, a sparklingly talented player, and a lovely singer the first time I heard him sing and play one of his songs with Heatmiser. He was amazing. His songs are amazing. I’m glad so many other people think so, too, 25 years later.

All photos of Elliott Smith in this article by JJ Gonson. Published in partnership with Kill Rock Stars.

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1 Comment
  • Jul 24,2020 at 02:17

    That is such an incredibly touching photo of Elliott. These albums are such a part of my life that it’s hard to listen to them unless the timing is right but I’ll always be grateful I got to hear and see him play and that we have these albums and documents to keep.

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