Jeff Buckley And His Magnetic Personality

A post by Merri Cyr on Facebook. Translation from Spanish to English of interview with Alejo Vivacqua at BACHE Magazine, Argentina.

"When I initially met Jeff I thought he was one of those typical pretty boy musicians," says photographer Merri Cyr, recalling the impression left by the 1966 California-born artist, son of fellow musician Tim Buckley. It was the early '90s, Jeff Buckley was playing some local cafes and clubs and she had been commissioned by Paper Magazine to photograph him. "He lived in the apartment of his girlfriend Rebecca, on Elizabeth Street in Manhattan, and I went there to do the shoot. By the time we finished, I was definitely curious about his music. When I first heard him sing 'Hallelujah' at Sin-é, a popular New York cafe, I suddenly started to sob I was so overwhelmed by his version of the song. It was completely heartbreaking and beautiful."

Their relationship would grow stronger until they became first co-workers and then friends. And although it only lasted five years (Buckley died in May 1997, at thirty, drowned in a river in Tennessee), Cyr remembers that period vividly. "He called me out of nowhere a few days before his first recording session for Sony. I hadn't heard from him for six months and I came home one day to find seven messages from him on the answering machine. He wanted me to shoot his first EP, Live at Sin-é (1993). Around the recording they ended up spending a lot of time together, sharing a few very intense days in which their bond was finally forged.

A professional photographer since 1988, Cyr also portrayed actors, actresses and directors such as David Lynch, Victoria Abril and Wim Wenders, among others and others for different media. Also, hired by record labels like Sony, Polygram and Warner she worked with musicians like Joey Ramone, Anohni (of Antony and the Johnsons), Bobby Gillespie (Primal Scream) and Henry Rollins (Black Flag), to name just a few. In this dialogue with Bache, Cyr reviews her career and her bond with photography and recalls her work and personal moments with Jeff Buckley.

"When I was fifteen, I won a national modeling contest for a teen perfume called "Loves Baby Soft," and was photographed in the campaign by one of the world's most famous photographers, Richard Avedon. I modeled for a while, but quickly became more interested in what the photographers and assistants were doing, so I started studying." In my career, I've photographed hundreds of actors and actresses, and I can say that true professionals know exactly what image they want to project. They alter their expression with every shot, and fully control the image they want to project. Actors are used to having a camera in their face, so they are very practiced at directing their expressions with great precision.

Most directors, on the other hand, don't seem to like to be photographed. Like me, they are almost always analyzing the light being used, the angle of the camera, and probably thinking about how they would be doing it. That being said, I had a pretty good time photographing Wim Wenders in 1991 for Paper Magazine. I met him alongside Solveig Dommartin, the actress who had achieved international fame with Wings of Desire (1987). They were in New York for a press conference for the movie Until The End of The World (1991), it was raining outside and Wenders wanted to go back to his hotel up on 59th Street to take the photos. They couldn't get a taxi, so I ended up taking them in my dirty old '70s station wagon, with the cigarette butts falling out of the ashtray and the garbage piling up in the back seat. We got stuck in traffic in pouring rain, and for a moment I thought I was becoming a character study. They were extremely kind and in their hotel room we had a great time taking the photos.

Working with musicians is one of my favorite tasks because they are often able to emote for the camera the way they do on stage, and are often open to experimentation. I think there is a correlation between composing for music and visual composition that’s done with a camera. Jeff and I had conversations about that. One of my habits is to try not to make judgements on an artist's music in advance and keep an open mind to see what kind of images listening generates for me. I aways discuss my ideas with the artist, and ask for their opinion. When I asked Jeff Buckley his thoughts on some of the things I had in mind, he loved it. He said a photographer had never asked for his point of view about creating the visuals for a session. The great thing about Jeff was that he was open to almost any idea that I threw at him.

Whether introverted or extroverted, a real artist always has something that they need to bring out into the world. They want to show it to you and for you to see it, and that's great because that's what I like to do. I like to visually try to decipher the language they speak.

Jeff had a magnetic personality and was very seductive. I also imagined one aspect of his personality as a Charles Dickens variation of the abandoned waif. That version of him broke many hearts, including mine. On the other hand, he was very comical and often acidic in his humor, both in person and on stage. Sometimes a bit of George Carlin, other times somewhat darker in the flavor of Lenny Bruce.

I remember travelling with him and the band on the Grace tour. Before each show he would do a quick scan around the room, as if he wanted to capture or acclimate to the mood of the audience. It almost seemed as if he was smelling the air for it. If the room was noisy, he had an effective way to assert control of the vibe. He would start with an almost inaudible "ooooooooohhhhhhh", gradually increasing in volume. And in thirty seconds the room was silent. He was like a magician conjuring a spell. Jeff could make the audience connect with him almost instantly when he was at the top of his game.

He could seduce almost anyone. Visually in the photographs he pulls you in with his sweet expressions and makes you love him. And yet there was something imminently sad about his countenance, as if he thought he was unlovable somehow. It seems ridiculous, because I met a lot of people who would have done anything for him. I always got the feeling that soon he would be leaving us here on earth.

Something that I remember that stands out in my mind is when I was on the Grace tour with him and his band in 94/95. I felt like part of my job was to watch over him. I was photographing him for weeks, and sometimes when he was on stage doing soundcheck, or in the bar, he would look around to catch my eye, acknowledging me with a nod or smirk. Like "ah, there you are." That's when I would take a photo.

The Grace shoot (1994), was done for the first and only studio album Jeff ever released. My friend Billy Basinski, an ambient musician, had a wonderful loft/cabaret space he created in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. In the early 90’s there were only a handful of artists in the neighborhood. Most people still wouldn’t go to Brooklyn because you could hardly ever get a taxi to take you there and people thought it was rough, which it could be. Billy allowed me to make sets in the loft as well as use his partners art work that was everywhere. Jeff arrived at the shoot with an army duffel bag full of wrinkled clothing and emptied it on the bed. The stylist we hired spent the whole day ironing the wrinkles in the clothes. It was almost all vintage outfits because Jeff primarily wore old fashioned jackets and second hand clothes for his outfits on stage.

For the cover photo of Grace he was wearing a jacket with gold sequins that he had bought on the street. We had a lot of fun taking the photos, but the jacket created a lot of problems later on. The Sony people hated it. On the one hand, it was an amazing experience and I feel very fortunate to have worked with such an incredible artist. He was very generous with me. But on the other hand, I was a bit tormented because Jeff made it clear to me and anyone who would listen that he probably wouldn't be on earth for much longer. As much as I loved working with him and getting to know him, I was always waiting for the ball to drop. It seemed inevitable, but I always hoped that he would change his mind and evolve through what was ailing him.

25 Years of Grace is a book of my pictures of Jeff in the almost five years that I knew him. It includes the studio work, documentary, and concept photos we did together. I interviewed most of the people who were involved in creating his only full-length album, and I think all the interviews together reconstruct the story of how Jeff musically came into being in the early 90's and creates a portrait of the music industry as it existed at that moment. The big surprise for me was that the interviews formed their own story when combined, and with the addition of my images I felt it was the best tribute I could offer him. The book offers a glimpse into another time and place.

Source: Merri Cyr - March 14, 2021