Stay up to date on all the latest news from Boston.com
Spencer Elden may very well be the most famous naked baby the world has ever seen.
A photo of him as an infant — submerged in water and seemingly chasing a dollar bill dangling from a fish hook — became the iconic cover of Nirvana’s 1991 release “Nevermind,” considered one of the greatest rock albums of all time.
Three decades later, Elden is now claiming the album cover is child pornography.
Elden, who’s 30, on Tuesday filed a lawsuit in a Los Angeles federal court against a host of defendants tied to the album, alleging the cover is “sexual exploitation” that will hurt him — emotionally and physically — for the rest of his life.
Those defendants include Nirvana LLC, several of its members, the estate of frontman Kurt Cobain, the designer and photographer involved in creating the cover, and the record label that released the album. None of them responded to emails sent from The Washington Post late Tuesday and early Wednesday.
The suit alleges that all were involved in making child pornography and benefited from “the sex-trafficking venture and Spencer’s exploitation” that was the distribution of “Nevermind.”
“[They] used child pornography depicting Spencer … in a sexually provocative manner to gain notoriety, drive sales, and garner media attention,” the lawsuit states. Elden is represented by Robert Y. Lewis, a New York-based attorney.
Elden’s legal guardians did not sign a release authorizing Nirvana or the band’s record label to use the image of Elden “and certainly not of commercial child pornography,” the suit claims. Elden said he has never received any financial compensation for the cover, which Billboard last year ranked No. 7 on its list of “The 50 Greatest Album Covers of All Time.”
Cobain’s original idea for the cover of “Nevermind” was a baby being born underwater, but designer Robert Fisher nixed it as infeasible, according to an undated article written for Milanote, a company that offers an online organization tool.
While ruling out much of Cobain’s idea, Fisher kept the germ of having a baby underwater.
“So Kurt came up with the idea of adding a fishhook to make it more menacing,” Fisher said for the Milanote article, which Elden cites in his lawsuit.
Concept in hand, they hired photographer Kirk Weddle to execute their vision. Weddle then recruited about five parents to bring their infants to an aquatic center in Pasadena, Calif., according to Milanote, where they took turns passing their babies under the water as Weddle took pictures.
Elden’s dad, Rick, had become friends with Weddle when he was helping with sets and props on photo shoots. One day, Weddle telephoned with an unusual request concerning his 4-month-old son.
“[He] calls us up and was like, ‘Hey Rick, [want to] make 200 bucks and throw your kid in the drink?'” Rick Elden told NPR at the time. “And we just had a big party at the pool, and no one had any idea what was going on!”
A week later, Fisher received the proof sheets of 40 to 50 shots. One stood out far above the rest: It was Elden.
“There was just one that was absolutely perfect. The positioning, the look on the baby’s face, the way that his arms were stretched out like he was reaching for something — everything about it was just perfect. That’s the one I picked,” Fisher said for the Milanote article.
The lawsuit filed Tuesday paints a darker picture, identifying Nirvana’s frontman as the one who made the decision.
“Cobain chose the image depicting Spencer — like a sex worker — grabbing for a dollar bill that is positioned dangling from a fishhook in front of his nude body,” the suit alleges.
Elden has spent decades struggling to come to terms with the fame that has followed him since before he could walk. He has worked with photographers several times over the years to re-create the album cover — all with clothes on. He has “Nevermind” tattooed across his chest.
His attitudes about it have changed, too.
In 2008, as a teenager, he told NPR: “Quite a few people in the world have seen my penis,” he said. “So that’s [kind of] cool. I’m just a normal kid living it up and doing the best I can while I’m here.”
Over the next eight years, his outlook soured. In 2016, Elden did several interviews when he was in his mid-20s on the 25th anniversary of the “Nevermind” release.
In one with GQ, Elden said he was angry about being defined by something he had no control over. In another with Time, he said “it feels kind of stupid doing interviews about it, because I had nothing to do with it, but a lot to do with it all at the same time.”
Elden said some people think it’s cool that he’s “the Nirvana baby.” But, he added, women he dated would dump him when they found out he wasn’t making any money off it. And having friends talk about the naked photo was embarrassing, especially without any compensation to offset that humiliation, he said.
While Elden has struggled financially, he said, others have and are still making millions off something he helped create — even if he didn’t have a say in what was created.
“It’s a trip. Everyone involved in the album has tons and tons of money. I feel like I’m the last little bit of grunge rock,” he told Time in 2016. “I’m living in my mom’s house and driving a Honda Civic.”
Elden is seeking at least $150,000 from each of the 15 named defendants in the lawsuit, legal fees and other unspecified damages.
In the GQ article, Elden also addressed an issue more closely tied to the lawsuit he filed Tuesday.
“I’ve been going through it my whole life. But recently I’ve been thinking, ‘What if I wasn’t OK with my freaking penis being shown to everybody?’ I didn’t really have a choice.”
Perhaps sensing it had become a sore subject, the interviewer gave Elden a reprieve. They were done talking about Nirvana, he said. Time to move on to a new subject: What was he doing now? After all, Elden had become an accomplished artist in his own right.
“I’ve been doing a few art shows and paintings,” Elden said before turning back to the subject of the Nirvana album cover. “I don’t know if I’m ever going to be able to do a piece of work better than that in my entire life. But I’m just trying to get it out of my head — this image of a baby chasing a dollar — and not worry about making millions of dollars.
“It’s a complicated thing.”
Stay up to date on all the latest news from Boston.com
Stay up to date with everything Boston. Receive the latest news and breaking updates, straight from our newsroom to your inbox.
This discussion has ended. Please join elsewhere on Boston.com