There’s a scene in the 2011 documentary, “Pearl Jam Twenty,” in which frontman Eddie Vedder is giving director Cameron Crowe a tour of his house. At one point, Vedder stands on a stairway, pointing out photos from years past. One of them is from what he believes is the band’s third show.
Watching this in the dark of a movie theater, photographer Karen Mason Blair was confused: “I thought, ‘Why didn’t he have a picture from their first concert?'”
She knew one existed because she had taken 36 of them — and that they had been tucked away, in one of four file cabinets in her Edmonds home, for the last 20 years.
Mason Blair went home and started pulling photos that she had shot between 1989 and 1992. Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Mother Love Bone, Soundgarden, the Screaming Trees and Alice in Chains. The bands who played Seattle clubs, who made up her community — and who would burst upon the national and international music scenes within months of those early shows.
After editing hundreds of photos and captioning them with her memories, Mason Blair has released “The Flannel Years,” a book of more than 150 photographs from a pivotal time in Seattle. The foreword was written by Nirvana’s Krist Novoselić.
Released last month after Mason Blair held small photo exhibits all around the city, the book, already in its third printing, is available at Easy Street Records, Third Place Books and Mason Blair’s website.
Mason Blair will hold a signing at Easy Street Records from 6-9 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 12.
Going through her photos, Mason Blair, 54, wasn’t surprised at what she had in her collection. She remembered standing in front of the stages, shooting two or three shows a night, then catching more personal photos of the crowd gathered backstage.
She also remembered how bad the lighting was in those clubs, racing around the city in her old Camaro, being the only female shooter — and getting knocked around by some of the male photographers. A few years of that, and she needed to take a break.
“I had been in the shadow of male photographers for a very long time, so I got tired and sat down,” she said. “I got so tired of that shadow, so I just gave up, thinking, ‘My time will come.'”
She got married, moved to suburbia, had two kids and became a wedding photographer. Meanwhile, the bands she used to photograph and pal around with backstage took off like rockets.
But she also watched people fall to drugs and depression: Andrew Wood. Kurt Cobain. Layne Staley. And, two years ago, Chris Cornell.
“It was totally emotional,” Mason Blair said of seeing their faces in her photos after all that time. “I had to sit down and cry. But I wanted people to know that we were having the time of our lives. Before Andrew Wood died, we were having a great time. And before he died, Kurt Cobain was my friend.
“I wanted to tell that story.”
Mason Blair and her Nikon were regulars at places like The Central Tavern, Ditto, The Vogue and The Weathered Wall. Then came the grunge gold rush of the early ’90s, when record labels seemingly sent planeloads of agents to Seattle with contracts and pens at the ready. Those same bands started asking Mason Blair to shoot promotional photos, which she did in a small studio in Pioneer Square.
“We were just happy,” Mason Blair said. “Before the record companies, before the drugs. It’s heavy.”
Easy Street owner Matt Vaughan agreed that Mason Blair’s photos are unique in that they captured the joy of the time.
“She makes us remember and realize just how fun it was,” said Vaughan, who managed the band Gruntruck back then. “There is a lot of darkness associated with that scene in the late ’80s and through the ’90s. It was such a blast and a lot of fun and a lot of smiles, and Karen brought that out in everybody.”
He also noted Mason Blair’s role in “the feminine part” of that era, along with Soundgarden, Screaming Trees and Alice in Chains manager Susan Silver, plus the riot grrrl movement out of Olympia: “She was in it and she went to all the shows,” Vaughan said. “She didn’t just select the shows she was going to. She was at all of them, as a fan.”
But the darkness did come. The book includes one photo of Cobain, in a misshapen, holey brown sweater and dirty jeans, his hair hanging over his face while he plays guitar.
“It was a lot for me to show that photo,” Mason Blair said quietly, recalling Cobain’s struggle with drugs. “That’s what he looked like.”
As a counterpoint, she found a happier photo of Cobain — wearing white sunglasses, smiling — and used it for the cover of the book.
“Kurt was a feminist,” she said. “He would be so happy that he was on the cover of my book. And if Kurt was here, I probably would have done it sooner, because he wanted to empower women.”
Mason Blair started taking pictures as a student at Edmonds High School, then got her commercial photography degree from Seattle Central College. She made monthly trips to Hollywood, where she found a studio space and shot promotional photos for bands such as Faith No More. In between those jobs, she’d call record companies and clubs asking for, and getting, access to photograph bands such as Duran Duran, Radiohead and Everclear when they performed in Los Angeles. She used those photos to get work from magazines.
She returned to Seattle full-time just as the nation was taking notice of Seattle’s music scene, and the people making it happen. Mason Blair was sure to capture the bands, but also those who supported them. Managers like Silver and Kelly Curtis. Producers. Crew.
“It was a homegrown, organic movement,” she said.
After Cornell killed himself in 2017, Rolling Stone tracked Mason Blair down and asked for photos. She was torn about whether to sell his image.
“I was crying,” she said. “I said, ‘I don’t want to be in Rolling Stone for this.’ Chris was so sweet to me. I am sad that he was so sad. And that he was sad is such a shock.”
She sent the magazine one shot, of Cornell in a Pearl Jam shirt, standing in the window of her Pioneer Square studio.
“My book is about living,” she said. “It’s not about death, or who is not with us. It’s about what we accomplished and what we celebrated and what a few hundred people did to change the world and make a music movement.
“I just wanted to give you guys a glimpse.”
“The Flannel Years: A Photographic Tour” by Karen Mason Blair, self-published, 144 pages, $50
Author appearance: Karen Mason Blair will hold a book signing at 6 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 12, Easy Street Records, 4559 California Ave. S.W., Seattle; 206-938-3279