A Room Full of Emptiness

A retrospect on photographing Chris Cornell the night of this tragic suicide.

On Monday, May 17th, I hit I-75 on the northbound route into Detroit. I was nervous for the whole trip to the Fox Theatre that evening. Probably the most nervous I have ever been to photograph an individual artist or band in my entire concert photography career.

On Monday, May 17th, I was doing photography work for one of the biggest rock bands in the world, Soundgarden, as well as their polarizing and, already, legendary lead singer, Chris Cornell.

Up until May 17th, and even until this day, June 8th, Soundgarden was going to be/is the largest act that I've ever photographed, let alone worked for; which warranted my nervousness, but I believed in my ability to produce quality work.

Rewind almost 15 years ago, I'm riding in the passenger seat of my fathers 1997 Ford Bronco, blaring "Like A Stone" by supergroup, Audioslave, through an extremely loud Kenwood speaker in the back of the truck. Next came, "Black Hole Sun", and "Spoonman" from Cornell's earlier work with Soundgarden.

Thinking back, some of my earliest musical memories revolved around Metallica, Soundgarden or some other kind of heavy rock music. The music my father introduced me to when I was young directly influenced my love for the music, and bands, that I cherish today.

Fast forward from there to a dark day in September of 2010 when my father passed away from a heart condition, and instantly, the love for bands like Metallica, Soundgarden and the like, took on a whole new meaning.

And now we're back to May 17, 2017.

I'm standing outside the Fox Theatre, looking up at the marquee of a historical venue that has hosted legendary acts, but in a few mere hours, would become more even more fabled. In that moment, I can't believe that I'm about to use my passion and talent as a photograph for a band as popular as Soundgarden, and a music legend as storied as Cornell.

Once in the venue, the lights dim, and the band make their way onto the Fox Theatre stage and I do what I'm good at. I get home from the show, edit the photos and send them to the bands management before getting as much sleep as I could before going to my day job early the next morning.

But that Thursday morning was different than every Thursday that preceded it. I woke up to dozens of text messages and a few phone calls from friends and family, as well as a handful of emails from the bands publicist and management.

For context, I had bragged extensively in the days leading up to the show, to many of my friends and family, that I was providing my photography to Soundgarden, because honestly, who wouldn't?

But that morning, the feeling of excitement and nervousness based around photographing Soundgarden, had changed to taken aback and, quite frankly, confused.

The news I woke up to, was that Chris Cornell had taken his own life, just hours after absolutely rocking a sold out Fox Theatre. Cornell had even exclaimed, multiple times, about how Detroit was his favorite city to perform in and how he was so excited to back.

I read his manager's email to me, immediately looked at my girlfriend and said some words that I'm not going to repeat here.

Prior to leaving for work, I had posted a "tribute" post of a few images I had taken of Cornell the night before, and one photo on Facebook with a longer caption about the honor of working for Soundgarden and Chris Cornell.

It wasn't until Ashley Osborn emailed me with one simple sentence, that it hit me as to the extent of how connected to that Detroit show at the Fox Theatre, I truly was.

"These are some of the last images of Chris Cornell alive."

Those words changed my perspective on the entire circumstance. I was the last professional photographer to ever work for Chris Cornell.

Somehow, the photo that I posted (which is the photo used as the header in this post) caught the eye of someone, and news outlets, both local and national, flooded my inbox, offering to pay large sums of money for the one photo.

I had signed a photo release contract with the bands management, in which I basically agreed to only provide my work to Soundgarden and no one else, strictly forbidding the sale to third-parties.

Had I not signed the release, I still wouldn't have sold the photo, I refuse to profit off of someone's suicide and mental turmoil.

The photo in the header of this post, at least to me and a few other people that I have talked to about this, shows a man fighting something in his own mind.

For context, that photo was taken at a time where a guitar solo was being played by the band's guitarist and the light was being taken off of Cornell. It was a moment of vulnerability from a man with thousands of eyes on him. You can see the pain in Cornell's eyes.

It's general knowledge that Cornell had fought addiction and mental illness throughout his life, but his death was still a surprise, not only to people that knew him best, but even the most casual fan.

On May 18th, his story came to a close, but Cornell will live on in the images, not just taken by me in his last hours, but by all kinds of talented photographers; as well as through the personal songs and lyrics that emanated from him.

I will forever be honored and grateful for the opportunity that I had on May 17, 2017. 

"In my time of dying, want nobody to mourn. All I want for you to do is take my body home.

So I can die easy."

Rest In Peace, Chris Cornell.