LOS ANGELES — Spencer Elden, the man whose unusual baby portrait was used for one of the most recognizable album covers of all time, Nirvana’s “Nevermind,” filed a lawsuit Tuesday alleging that the nude image constituted child pornography.
The album cover depicts Elden underwater in a swimming pool as a then-infant with his genitalia exposed. The image has generally been understood as a statement on capitalism, as it includes the digital imposition of a dollar bill on a fishhook that the baby appears to be enthusiastically swimming toward. Non-sexualized nude photos of infants are generally not considered child pornography under law.
However, Robert Y. Lewis, Elden’s lawyer, offers an unusual interpretation of the image to argue that it crosses the line into child porn, writing that the inclusion of currency in the shot makes the baby appear “like a sex worker.”
“Defendants intentionally commercially marketed Spencer’s child pornography and leveraged the shocking nature of his image to promote themselves and their music at his expense,” reads the lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court’s central district of California and obtained by Variety. “Defendants used child pornography depicting Spencer as an essential element of a record promotion scheme commonly utilized in the music industry to get attention, wherein album covers posed children in a sexually provocative manner to gain notoriety, drive sales, and garner media attention, and critical reviews.”
The cover art subject — who, like the “Nevermind” album itself, is now 30 — is asking at least $150,000 from each of the defendants, who include include surviving band members Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic; Courtney Love, the executor of Kurt Cobain’s estate; Guy Oseary and Heather Parry, managers of Cobain’s estate; photographer Kirk Weddle; art director Robert Fisher; and a number of existing or defunct record companies that released or distributed the album in the last three decades.
Curiously, original Nirvana drummer Chad Channing is also named as a defendant who was part of the group at the time, even though he had been replaced by Grohl in 1990, before the album was recorded or the cover photography shot.