The world is a little different than it was 26 years ago. Yet back in 1994, an album was released by a musician called Jeff Buckley that left a lasting impression on musicians and artists the world over. An album so spectacular in its magnificence, that so much music from the following 26 years can draw direct parallels to this unique album.
The iconic cover art for the album Grace, presenting Buckley solemnly posing in quiet contemplation, was captured perfectly by photographer Merri Cyr. It is their relationship which has enabled us to continue to live through Buckley’s short but hugely influential career.
Without Merri Cyr’s photos of Jeff Buckley, documenting his short career, we would never be able to feel as close as we do to the incomparable talent.
Before Grace existed, even before the concept of a solo album came to being, Buckley was performing in small cafes and bars around New York. You can see the full power, elation and transcending capabilities of the young artist in full detail on his album Live at Sin-é, recorded over a couple of days at a small coffeehouse in 1993. This performance shows Buckley at his purest, his most vulnerable along with hinting at a restless, loving and unforgettably funny person underneath. The balance is otherworldly, and all he seems to need is a Fender Telecaster with slight reverb to reach these lofty heights few artists ever managed to reach.
It was here that our photographic history of Buckley began. Merri Cyr, a fledgling photographer in the New York artistic scene, experienced these close quarters moments and slowly became an integral element of the artists inner circle of collaborators. Eventually, Buckley asked Cyr if she would help capture the sound he was trying to achieve through a photoshoot. This shoot would eventually produce the perfect encapsulation of Buckley’s image and career, this being the front cover of the only solo album released during his lifetime, Grace.
Cyr would continue to document every nook and cranny in Buckley’s life, from phone interviews, through to major photoshoots and all the way back to the small personal moments of peace in-between the constant touring and media frenzy.
“Jeff was instrumental in my creative life, in helping me get my start,” Cyr explained in an interview with Newshub for Grace’s 25th Anniversary last year. When discussing his accidental death by drowning in 1997, Cyr talked about how it felt important to capture everything he did, no matter how spectacular or mundane. “When I was photographing Jeff, I was always aware he was here for a very limited time. That awareness of time running out for him was always there,” Cyr pondered over Jeff’s death for years and it still affects her to this day.
The defining image of Cyr’s relationship with Buckley will always remain the cover of Grace with Buckley focused and in the moment, standing in his solitude wearing a glittery ‘Judy Garland’ jacket. Cyr mused, “After he got me my first album cover with Columbia in 1993, photography was officially my life.” When deciding on the cover art from the respective photoshoot, Buckley saw the image and instantly said, “That’s the cover. I can tell I’m listening to the music in that shot!” It is funny to think that the record label didn’t like the photo because, to use Cyr’s words, “they thought he looked too effeminate.”
Without Cyr, our relationship with Buckley would be far more distant. She enables us to see behind the doors that hide so many of our musical idols and heroes. Her photography has given way to so many of us feeling so connected to Buckley. Cyr encapsulates Buckley’s music in her photos, saying, “The music still breaks hearts, while also comforting the broken-hearted… Because the beautiful music Jeff produced is so limited, it makes it all the more precious.”
To end on Buckley’s own words, “Music seems to me to be the most closely identified with my soul. I mean, I feel that it’s the best for me. It just gets into the bloodstream so quickly, for no reason at all. You can close your heart, and you can sleep even with your eyes closed, but you can never close your ears.” Cyr brings someone who seems so far away so much closer. We can almost touch him through these photos, and just like his music, Buckley always wanted to bring you as close as possible.
He wanted you to know that you were understood and not alone in the silence that pervades so much solitude. In times like these, knowing we are not alone in any form of solitude is truly something to hold on to.