The most instantly recognizable image from Soundgarden‘s Superunknown era beside those obscenely stretched faces is, of course, the album cover. Dubbed the “Screaming Elf,” the bleak art features a heavily distorted image of the band imposed above an upside-down, burning forest. The photo was shot by Kevin Westerberg, who has also worked with the likes of Nirvana, Radiohead, and R.E.M.
A week after Chris Cornell‘s death on May 18, Westerberg shared for the first time the full shot of what would become the cover of Soundgarden’s biggest selling album. He also gave some brief backstory as well, which you can read below. Read SPIN’s coverage of Cornell throughout the past 25 years here.
I’m fortunate that during my career I have worked with many of my art director heroes. There have been many discussions concerning visual philosophy and theory as to what makes something work, and why the opposite holds true. In some ways this cover was just one glorious accident. There was no real plan on the day of the album shoot for SUPERUNKNOWN. Most times with every musician, no matter which style of music I was working around the world, there would rarely be a plan. During those jobbing years where there were crazy budgets and infinite patience on the part of all involved, a level of trust was earned. Looking back I suppose my level of trust in the business at this stage was fairly high. To the point where I would think of the atmosphere to create and the technical ability needed to achieve the vision and then we just go for it with the blessings of all the moneymen.
The level of consultation and planning was also minimal, as you never wanted to let them see you sweat. It was all about the end result and as my confidence during all those prime years was never an issue, there were also never any moments where I took my foot off the throttle. I pushed myself to the point of exhaustion constantly. If there were no nerves before a big shoot like this one with SOUNDGARDEN, then you’re walking dead. Forget it. I knew the stakes were high for this band that I loved so much. The absolute need to perform was there throughout. Also, as someone who was born in Seattle but had by then immigrated to the UK, it was even more important. Maximum creative pressure is never a bad thing.
This here is the full frame used for the album cover for SUPERUNKNOWN. While constructing the idea, I never expected this to somehow ever equate with the fantastic range of musical ideas created on the album. There’s always an added bit of luck and happenstance thrown in as well. Side note; I was always disappointed that Matt was cut out of the cover by the crop. Not my choice. Also, where did the name ‘Screaming Elf’ ever come from? Definitely not my choice! Good Times.
[h/t Alternative Nation]