Charles Peterson happened to be the right photographer at the right time. There were other photographers in Seattle in the late '80s and early '90s, but we have forgotten almost all of them because they were the wrong photographers for that time and place. What made Peterson right and so many others wrong? This question cannot be answered by looking over his photographs of life in postcommunist Vietnam or in post-Thatcherite England, or of UNICEF workers in the Dominican Republic. Those foreign images, though not bad (and often striking), are missing that special something we find in the black-and-white photos he took of a scene on the verge of international recognition and commercialization.
Peterson still lives in Seattle and still exhibits his grunge pictures around the world. In fact, not too long ago, I ran into him a day before he flew to Paris for a show dedicated to his famous body of work, collected in the book Touch Me I'm Sick. We were in a cafe: He was standing; I was sitting. He pulled out of his bag a handsome book and said, "Please check it out. It's called Cypher.... The reception for it has been a little odd. It has confused both my traditional clients [of the rock world] and those in the breakdancing scene." That was his reading of the situation. But a quick look at the black-and-white images of young and fit breakers in Seattle, Saigon, Los Angeles, Tokyo, and New York City instantly establishes a connection to Touch Me I'm Sick.
First a little background on breakdancing. One of the four founding components of hiphop culture, breakdancing (along with DJing, MCing, and graffiti) emerged in the late '70s in New York City, was commercialized in the mid '80s, and, as with DJing and graffiti, was eclipsed in the '90s by the spectacular rise of the rapper. Over the last two decades, breakdancing has developed into a global art form that has at once a very strong sense of its origins in hiphop—Rock Steady Crew, New York City Breakers—and of its independence from hiphop. Indeed, the local dancer Orb, who with the hiphop historian Jeff Chang writes one of the two introductions in Cypher, does not even call himself a breaker. He calls himself a "freestyle expressionist."
And now for the connection. What Peterson documents in Touch Me I'm Sick is a cultural movement that's fueled by a new energy. It's not about money or record deals but the sheer opening of something that's not yet grasped or understood. Alain Badiou calls this situation/sequence the "void." What grunge is in the late '80s is the void of Mötley Crüe, Guns N' Roses, Def Leppard, and Whitesnake. Grunge's break voids the glam-rock establishment, and in this open space bodies are free to fly and float.
In 1990, Peterson captures a Nirvana fan flying over the audience in the UW Ballroom. In 2007, Peterson captures a Massive Monkees breaker flying over the floor of the UW HUB. In another image, Frankie of the Supreme Beings NYC Crew flies across the basketball court at Kennedy High School in the Bronx. In another image, a dancer helicopters up from the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. This is the cultural zone of zero gravity. "Now I'm dancing through space and time easily," rapped Keymatic moments before breakdancing went pop in 1984. "Breaking in space is the thing in the '80s/Catch the next ride and join me in the galaxies." (Cypher also has images of dancers on the ground and relaxing, just as in the Touch Me I'm Sick series there are images of Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder recuperating from playing and soaring.)
How is this new race of multiracial, second-generation, global bodies still flying through the void 20 years after hiphop was closed and stabilized? And why is it that Peterson sees in their dedication, their raw energy, their light-streaked bodies, and their sweat-soaked clothes (there is even a pair of vibrant crutches) the same kind of enthusiasm that animates his images of the emerging music scene in Seattle?
What Peterson captures in the pages of Cypher is the contemporary breaker's ethic of what Badiou would call "fidelity to the event," to the initial sequence of truth, to the moment when breakers were in space. Cypher is the same book as Touch Me I'm Sick, in reverse. We can conclude with this: To remain true to the event, one must commit suicide or be committed to the void.