Singer, songwriter and guitarist Jeff Buckley completed only one studio album, Grace, before he drowned in a river in Mississippi at the age of 30. The album was not a commercial or critical success at the time of its release, but it has since seduced critics and audiences, and Buckley’s ethereal and haunting voice is considered to be one of the best of his generation.
American photographer Merri Cyr met Buckley on a photo shoot in Manhattan in the early 1990s. She documented his life on stage, and off, for the next five years.
Sydney’s Blender Gallery is showing 25 of Cyr’s images of Buckley in August and September, coinciding with the 20-year anniversary of the release of Grace. Some of the photographs have never before been printed or exhibited.
“Merri's photographs of Jeff Buckley, whilst very well known, are very personal,” says gallery director Tali Udovich. Cyr captured moments from Buckley’s early days of relative obscurity, playing in downtown New York clubs, until his death in 1997, on the eve of recording his second studio album.
Writing from her home in New York, Cyr told us about her memories of Buckley and what it was like to document the life of a singular and magnetic artist who, despite his very short life and career, has now achieved something of a cult status in many countries including Australia.
Broadsheet: Can you describe your first meeting with Buckley in Manhattan? It was intended as a one-off photo shoot – how did it come about?
Merri Cyr: I initially met Jeff in the fall of 1992 when I was assigned to photograph him for Paper Magazine. The art director at Paper, David Herskovitz, mentioned there was a musician performing weekly at Sine (a club in the East Village) who was creating quite a stir, and asked if I would like to photograph him. I called Jeff up and scheduled a time to meet him at his apartment on the Lower East Side.
He seemed to enjoy being photographed, which made it fun for me. I think the thing that struck me about him while we were photographing that first time was when he leaned in very close at one point and plucked a dust bunny from my sweater. He had a seductive way about him and created a sort of intimate connection right away, which was very nice for creating portraits.
BS: Had you heard of him before then?
MC: I hadn’t heard Jeff’s music when I first met him, but after photographing him I had a strong feeling that he was a good artist and decided to check him out at Sine. I liked a few of the shots we did so I made a couple prints for him and went to see him play. During his rendition of Hallelujah, I almost lost it. I was tremendously moved.
After the show I was outside of Sine having a smoke and he came out. When I walked up to him, it seemed as if he didn’t recognise me, even though I had photographed him just a few days before. He looked at me suspiciously. I told him how much I enjoyed the show and handed over the pics.
When he opened the box of prints, his face transformed into a big smile. He said, “These are great!” and jumped on me and gave me a big sloppy hug and kiss. He asked if he could use some of the pics for flyers to promote himself. That’s how my relationship with him started.
As we became friends, his moodiness could be somewhat challenging, but as a photographic muse it was fantastic.
BS: Can you talk about what Buckley was like in person? What was he like off stage?
MC: It seemed to me as if he viewed himself as a person whose fate was pre-determined by his history. I think the life he created for himself was based on some archetypal image that revolved around his father, who abandoned him before he was even born. Although he only met Tim Buckley once when he was a child, he inherited his father’s gifts and looks and pursued the same career as Tim.
Tim’s ghost was always in Jeff’s life, and sadly, I think he constantly compared himself to him. I am paraphrasing here, as it was a long time ago, but I remember Jeff once saying something like, “By the time Tim was my age he had seven albums out and slept with more beautiful women than I ever will. I can never catch up.”
BS: How did he feel about being photographed?
MC: As for the work we did together, I feel like Jeff really enjoyed being photographed. That's not always the case when I am assigned to photograph people.
His emotions and mood were constantly changing and were a pleasure to photograph, although his mercurial nature could be somewhat challenging on a personal level. I would say that he was initially a bit suspicious, but ultimately extremely generous once he felt he had ascertained someone's intentions. He liked to collaborate with other artists. He could go from being a self-reflective intellect to Beavis mode in the blink of an eye.
He never censored me or asked me to stop shooting, even when he was irked or introverted. He wasn't afraid to allow me to see that aspect of him, which I think is unusual in a subject. I feel as though he trusted me and the work we were doing. I felt like I was a witness, and also aware somehow that time was limited with him. I felt an awareness that he was only going to be here for a short while.
BS: What were some of your favourite or most memorable moments documenting him?
There was this time when I was on the road with him in Miami, Florida. We had had a fight a couple days prior in New Orleans and I almost split and went home to NY. I was mad, but decided not to bag out of the tour. Two days later and we had travelled separately to Miami and I am supposed to meet him for breakfast at a restaurant on the beach. As I see him sauntering up, I see that he is wearing my shirt. He had gone through my bags in the bus and taken one of my shirts. It somehow made it impossible to stay mad at him. I wanted to kill him and hug him at the same time. After he died, I saw a lot of different concert footage from around the globe where he is wearing my shirt and it made me feel pretty weird. I guess I wondered if he was thinking about me when he had it on. It’s a light blue shirt with little swirly things on it.
20 Years of Grace will show at Blender Gallery from August 21 until September 13.