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Photographer reflects on his years with Pearl Jam

Pearl Jam onstage_Lance Mercer.jpg

As Pearl Jam made the rapid climb from rookie to superstar act, Seattle native Lance Mercer was there with his trusty camera as the band’s designated photographer.

5×1: Pearl Jam Through the Eye of Lance Mercer features plenty of Mercer’s images of the group, and on Dec. 12, he’ll sign copies of the book at Manhattan’s Morrison Hotel Gallery, where some of Mercer’s PJ pics will be on display.

Mercer recently talked about his working relationship with the band, shooting the cover for Ten and much more. When and how did you first cross paths with Pearl Jam, and what was your first impression of the band musically and visually?
Lance Mercer: “I met Jeff [Ament] and Stone [Gossard] when they were in different bands in Seattle in the late ’80s. Our bond grew when I photographed Mother Love Bone. We all stayed in touch after Andrew Wood passed away.

“When Pearl Jam was formed, they asked me to come photograph them for some promo shots — that was 1990. The first show I photographed was Pearl Jam in 1990, when they did a short tour under the name of Mookie Blaylock. I thought they had a great sound and there was a lot to photograph. There look wasn’t as colorful as Mother Love Bone but was unique for the time. Eddie [Vedder] was extremely powerful without doing much, and it was amazing to catch that energy on film. I look back at that time as all of us just riding a rocket. It was fast, furious, fun and all of it continues to inform my work as a photographer.”

Talk about the first time you photographed the band and what the band thought of those particular photos.
Mercer: “I photographed them in 1990 at their rehearsal space –very simple, Nikon F3, two lenses. I think they were more impressed with how quick and painless the process was; they liked a few of the shots. And a few of those shots will be included in the Morrison Hotel exhibit.

“We were all very young and just starting out, so everything was new. When things started to grow and change at the speed of light, I kept the lens on them but in a different way than at the beginning.

Who came up with the concept for the Ten album cover, and was there anything notable about that particular photo shoot?
Mercer: “That was a concept Jeff Ament had approached me about. We talked about it for a while, and I threw a few other ideas in. We went to the hardware store and got all the materials to make the letters. Ed, Jeff and I set up camp for a few days in the studio and had a great time being creative. They were all willing to do whatever it took to get it done.

“The most notable memory for me was how much the initial idea and image changed after the record company got involved and worked on it — more of a big learning experience for me about artist vs. industry.”

How did Pearl Jam’s fame and success impact your approach to photographing the band?
Mercer: “Well, I had to slow down a bit and let them go through the process. I still documented what I could. I lowered my expectations on how much they would do when I asked, so I stopped asking as much and got a bigger lens — the stage was growing every year. It was the right approach. I got much more from them just being part of the woodwork. There were so many people, fans, friends, new friends, and I think the early stuff really captures the growth during that time.”

Who in the band liked having his picture taken, and who was the least enthusiastic about being photographed?
Mercer:Mike [McCready] and I have always had a nice bond with him being not ashamed of being in my face and me in his, and Ed was a bit harder at first but he warmed up and had a nice sense of humor about the process. He also wound up having a lot of great creative ideas about what I was doing. … they always were just fine with me documenting what was going on.”

Who have you worked with lately, and what projects do you have planned for 2010?
Mercer: “I’ve been focused on getting my archive in order, this big Morrison Hotel show as well as teaching ‘Documenting Live Music’ at a photography school in Seattle. I’m still shooting but refocused a bit more on editorial/fashion/studio stuff.

“My goal for 2010 is to expand and shoot more advertising, creative, fashion and other things. I love New York City, and it will be great to get back into that whirlwind.

“No matter what is happening, I will always be a photographer. For me, it’s a way of life. I can pretend to have a regular job, or pretend to be a painter or a musician, but it always comes around to being 14 again and discovering my dad’s old 35mm camera and falling in love with everything about photography. I tend to see the world in that way, no matter what else I am doing.”

— Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior

Photo of Pearl Jam in Seattle by Lance Mercer