Joseph Cultice's photographs of Nine Inch Nails originally appeared in Revolver's Aug/Sept 2018 issue.
In March of 1994, Nine Inch Nails released their second studio album, The Downward Spiral — Trent Reznor's concept album exploring the destruction of a man. By all rational calculations, the album's industrial-metal sound and dark subject matter — sex, death, self-hate, violence and decay— should have automatically disqualified it from mass consumption. But for some reason the album transcended these grim themes and connected with the public (and critics) and achieved resounding mainstream success, thanks to the stand-out singles "March of the Pigs" and "Closer."
Photographer Joseph Cultice was on hand to document much of this game-changing period for Nine Inch Nails. Below he shares the stories behind shooting Reznor during this time, and how he captured the image of the creepy millipede that became the now-iconic Closer to God single cover.
JOSEPH CULTICE When I started shooting Trent I was still a photo assistant and they were my big break. This was probably the second or third session I did with them. At the time I was an assistant to Matthew Rolston. And we shot this at his studio on Melrose which was a small 2,000-square-foot stage. That [band portrait is] shot in a mylar mirror, like a plexiglass mirror that you can bend. It's all scratched up and distorted. We shot for two days, the second day was a lot of the band portraits and the first day was just the bugs, which is that Closer to God cover.
That's Closer to God. I never shot still lifes of bugs before. But I'd assisted a guy named Hans Neleman, who was lighting things with mirrors and little teeny hot lights and laying things between layers and layers of glass — that's like coffee and milkshakes and snot and dirt and stuff from the street. On this one the bug is right on top and sharp, but all that stuff below is different layers of junk on the glass.
Remember that movie Interview With a Vampire? It had just finished wrapping … The guy that brought the bugs was part of the company that did all the animal wrangling for Interview With a Vampire — all the alligators and all that. He brought boxes and boxes — like Ikea clear boxes — filled with millipedes and cockroaches. We shot like 50 different pictures of bugs, and this is the one that turned out to be the cover. Trent was there the whole day, because he wanted to hang out with the bugs.
That was the beginning of The Downward Spiral tour when [Marilyn] Manson joined; he only played a couple shows. He still has eyebrows in that picture and hardly any tattoos at that point. That was backstage in Toronto, they were playing a festival with Soundgarden. So Trent is standing there [wearing] the jacket he wore in the "Closer" video.
That's from the 'Burn' video, which was part of the Natural Born Killers soundtrack. It's just a bunch of fake blood on his face [and Trent looking] in the mirror. That was two days before he went to Woodstock.
What I do with lots of bands like this, and I still do it now, is that I would just set up lights in weird corners. I would just grab one of them and shoot a roll, or shoot five instant Polaroids, and then they'd have to go back to the video. At a certain point when you work with someone for a while they just trust you. Back then everything I did was low-tech, I only had two heads or three heads or a weird little hot lights. Trent just let me take pictures. The mistake is asking: you just have to do it sometime. And if they get mad at you they're only mad at you for a little while. They forget about it pretty soon. Like Woodstock, if I had been timid, none of that stuff would have happened. So I was like, Fuck it man.