Behind the Lens

As Pearl Jam's tour photographer, Lance Mercer lived out a rock and roll fantasy.

In 1992, local photographer Lance Mercer was hired by Pearl Jam to go on the road as tour photographer. Through 1995, everywhere Pearl Jam went, Mercer followed, snapping photos of the band backstage, in hotel rooms, and in clubs and amphitheaters worldwide. Now, he has compiled the best of those energetic shots in a visually stunning book, 5x1: Pearl Jam Through the Eye of Lance Mercer. After three years of getting the book's details just right, 5x1 was finally released last month.

Seattle Weekly: One of the things that struck me about this book is the design. Not only is the photo reproduction pristine, but the layout is very imaginative. Can you tell me how the design concept came about?

Lance Mercer: When I first started thinking about the book, I had this idea of making it like a school yearbook. Regan Hagar was a person that I have known for years from the scene, and he had been bugging me to do a book, so he was the obvious choice for the person to design it. I explained to him the yearbook. I wanted the book to feel personal—little things like the fact it's small enough to carry around with you, no dust sleeve, raw edges—these are all to give it that yearbook feel.

In the beginning, I had no idea what images to use. I became frustrated and just handed all my contact sheets and slides to Regan and said, "You choose. . . . " It turned out to be a great move. He found images I didn't even know I had.

From there, we spent the next three years going through thousands of images to end up with the 180 that are in the book. I'm really happy with the way it turned out, and I'm still finding nice design elements that Regan carefully thought out.

There is a theme of constant motion running through the photos. During those years, did it feel like you were ever home?

Not really, but I was living a dream, and I was lucky enough to be on tour, so I figured I could always make up for lost sleep later. It's not very often opportunities come around like that. I was able to do the two things I love the most, photography and live music . . . go figure.

I'm guessing you were only in your mid- to late 20s when Pearl Jam hired you. Were you prepared at all for this type of job?

How do you know I wasn't still a teenager? Yeah, you're right, mid-20s. I wasn't prepared at all, but I didn't tell them that. As far as they knew, I was a pro. The first tour, I thought I brought the right equipment, at least what I was used to, shooting them up to that point in clubs. Then when I got to San Francisco, the stage was huge! So I knew I needed bigger lenses, but also it forced me to shoot behind the scenes more and get in closer. I learned as I went, and I still am.

In the photos, we see the Pearl Jammers go from grunge stars to internationally acclaimed rock icons. Was it weird for you, having known Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard from the Love Bone days, to witness their rise to fame so quickly?

I think it was strange for all of us, but it made for great photos. There were times where I noticed them having more people around that I didn't know. The family grew, but they became wary of people's motives, including mine to some extent. But I was also able to gain notoriety as a photographer through their success. Some of the photographs I include in the book are behind that wall that gets put up when bands gain success quickly. I was trying to show both sides.

Because everyone thinks of Charles Peterson as "the grunge photographer," will you state, for the record, when you started shooting and the names of the bands you were working with in the late '80s and early '90s?

I know he loves that moniker . . . as much as I love being Pearl Jam's "official" photographer. But yes, I was shooting in the early '80s; bands like the Fastbacks, the Fartz, Malfunkshun, many others. I just hung out and took my trusty Pentax K1000 everywhere. I also documented a lot of my friends hanging out. It's what I did and just recently I started bringing my camera around again. It's who I am, a photographer.

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