The Surfer Rosa series was a collaborative effort between myself and Pixies graphic designer Vaughan Oliver. This was the first time I was to photograph a stranger with a sense of intimacy and candour. Working in a similar way to “Nimrod’s Son” – my title for the photograph used on the cover of the Pixies EP Come on Pilgrim – Vaughan and I hand-built a set in the upstairs function room of a pub in South West London.
We needed a purpose-built, slightly raised, stage so that we could shoot with the set in an elevated position. Years on, Vaughan and my recollections as to the story behind the set differs somewhat (perhaps I misheard the original story) but my interpretation that I carried over the years was that Pixies frontman Charles Thompson (aka Black Francis/Frank Black) wrote some of his songs in bars with a Spanish themes in his hometown of Boston.
I wanted to develop the sense of decay and texture from my earlier images and we laced this with Catholic references (a theme inherent in the Pixies’ music but also deeply embodied in mine from several years before when documenting Greek Orthodox Churches in Greece and Turkey). For added irony we added the nailed fish motif ( carried over from Come on Pilgrim) as well as an original guitar from the band, which we embellished by breaking.
For Surfer Rosa I wanted to retain the distinctive Polaroid edges that we used on the Come on Pilgrim sleeve, so I shot again with Polaroid’s Type 55 – a unique film that yields a positive print as well as a very fine grained negative that can be printed from in the darkroom. There is a discrepancy between the film negative and Polaroid print in that their film speed (ASA/ISO) differs greatly – the print was given a speed of 50-75 but the negative was only 6-12. In layman’s terms this meant that to get a usable negative, one had to over expose the print – not good when requiring the approval of an art director who often had to show a client!
More often than not, several were made at varying exposures: something to suit both client and photographer. Ambient temperature was also a factor, and in the case of the Surfer Rosa session, we were shooting in the middle of Winter, where room temperature was near freezing. This resulted in the negatives being stored in very cold sodium sulphite solutions throughout the day as the shoot evolved. By the time I had got them back to my darkroom, many of the negatives had semi-solarized: in other words, the shadows had partly redeveloped in the freezing temperatures. This was a factor that we were to capitalize on when I made the prints and Vaughan designed the sleeves.