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JJ Gonson’s photos of singer Elliott Smith capture an artist and era

Pictures taken by the owner of Somerville’s Cuisine en Locale fill a lavish reissue of Smith’s self-titled second album

Elliott Smith
Elliott SmithJJ Gonson

Twenty-five years ago, Elliott Smith released his self-titled second solo album. It was a defining moment for an artist who rose out of the Portland, Ore., post-grunge indie scene to become one of rock’s most inspired and inspirational music makers. It also marked the beginning of the end for his band, Heatmiser.

“Heatmiser was so good. I always thought of their songs as clever-clever boy rock,” says Boston photographer JJ Gonson, Heatmiser’s manager and Smith’s then-girlfriend. “But once Elliott began recording his solo songs, it was obvious he wanted something different. I knew what I was hearing coming through the floorboards was really good.”

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JJ Gonson
JJ GonsonOliver Saffery

Gonson, who is the proprietor of Somerville’s Cuisine en Locale catering company and ONCE music club, had wound her way to Portland through a friend who had moved there. Smith and other members of Heatmiser were regulars at the coffee shop where she was working. She soon became friends and even housemates with some of them, and, as an avid photographer, Gonson captured Smith and the Portland underground scene in colorful, candid pictures.

Many of those mid-’90s photos are assembled in a stylish 52-page coffee-table book accompanying a special reissue of the late singer’s second album, “Elliott Smith: Expanded 25th Anniversary Edition,” released Friday on the Kill Rock Stars label. Smith died in 2003 at the age of 34.

Smith formed Heatmiser with fellow Portlander Neil Gust while studying at Hampshire College in Amherst. Ironically, prior to the release of “Elliott Smith,” the band had landed a major label deal with Virgin Records.

After Smith’s solo debut, “Roman Candle,” was released in 1994, his interest and energies were increasingly diverted to creating a new, different sound of his very own. In 1996, after Heatmiser’s third album, “Mic City Sons,” dropped, Smith quit.

The lavish reissue of “Elliott Smith” also includes a previously unreleased album, “Live at Umbra Penumbra,” the earliest known recording of Smith as a solo artist, which was captured at a Portland cafe in 1994.

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Smith’s incandescent voice powerfully combines frailty and force, just as mesmerizing finger-picking complements his grinding riffing. Quite the opposite of the stage-diving, slamdancing norm, Smith’s audiences would sit on the floor as he took the stage, and stayed there, rapt.

One “Live at Umbra Penumbra” song, “No Name #1” (from “Roman Candle”), tags Gonson with a writing credit. “I wrote the structure, and [Smith] created all the beauty around it,” she says fondly. “It was very kind of him to give me a credit.”

Photography, not music making, was much more her thing and, as she had for “Roman Candle,” Gonson provided the photos for the “Elliott Smith” cover art: the back cover shows her photo of Vienna’s Riesenrad Ferris wheel, famously used in Orson Welles’s “The Third Man.”

“That was our film,” says Gonson. “It was the film we really bonded over.”

Smith created the front image from her photo of an artwork outside a Prague museum. “He was just looking through my photos and really liked that one,” says Gonson. “He took it and Xeroxed it over and over to get that [grainy] effect.”

An Elliott Smith hat tip.
An Elliott Smith hat tip.JJ Gonson

Smith was undoubtedly driven and dedicated, but Gonson’s photos show him relaxed, smiling, and quite different from the media depictions of him as a depressed druggie, due to his often dark, candid lyrics.

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“He was hanging with friends; there was no agenda. I was just shooting everyone, not only Elliott,” Gonson points out.

One photo of Smith crouching over guitar hero Peter Frampton’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, however, found him stiffening up when Gonson asked him to pose. “We were in LA, goofing about, and we decided to be tourists,” she recalls. “We walked all over Hollywood and were hot and tired by that time. He might have been a little burnt out.”

Interspersed with text and Smith’s handwritten lyrics, delivered in a tight, neat script, Gonson’s photos in the album reissue package are presented formally, hearkening back to her studies at Boston’s Museum School (now the School of the Museum of Fine Arts).

“That’s my classic art-school training,” Gonson says. “The thin black line, the white mat; that’s correct in my art brain.”

Also, there’s no alteration: “You take a picture as you see it. You don’t crop it,” Gonson insists. “I am just capturing what I think is beautiful and what I think is important.” Smith, she says, was both.