The Nineties were a weird time. After Nirvana opened the floodgates with Nevermind the landscape of rock & roll quickly changed — all of a sudden underground, outsider artists were riding a wave of mass-media exposure and big-label funding, and genre-smashing festivals like Lollapalooza popped up, proving that unexpected pairings could pay off both in dollar signs and cultural influence.
So it made perfect sense that in 1994 concert organizers would seize the opportunity to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the OG music and arts freak-fest: Woodstock.
The three-day event, dubbed Woodstock '94, kicked off on August 12th on Winston Farm in Saugerties, New York — where the approximately half-a-million fans in attendance were treated to an eclectic bill of Nineties alternative artists, big-ticket hard rockers, hip-hop acts and radio hit-makers: Metallica, Live, Violent Femmes, Cranberries, Green Day, Rollins Band, Aphex Twin, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Aerosmith, Salt 'N Pepa, Bob Dylan, Allman Brothers Band and many more.
But none of these musicians delivered a more memorable performance than Nine Inch Nails. Just several months earlier Trent Reznor had unleashed his opus, The Downward Spiral, on the world, and by the time NIN hit the stage for their Saturday evening slot they were on fire. Photographer Joseph Cultice (who regularly shot Trent & Co. throughout this period) was given unparalleled access to document the set.
Below, Cultice recounts the story of how he got his iconic mud-covered shots of Nine Inch Nails, and why he was surprised they didn't all get violently sick in the process.
JOSEPH CULTICE If you look into that audience … It was so overwhelming. Me and my then-girlfriend only ventured out into that audience twice. I went out to take pictures of mud people, and it was so overwhelming that I was like, I cannot be out here! You had no control over where you went … the crowd just moved you. It was freaky.
I was on mushrooms, I didn't care, I got right up onstage. The people running Woodstock were mad at me because I was onstage. I tried to hide, kind of. Some of these really close shots you see, I'm like right at the monitor right on top of him. I shot like 30 rolls of film.
I remember saying to the guys, it would be great if you guys were like the mud men, like all the crazy kids out there covered in mud. So time passes, and then the stage manager was like, How do we get these guys muddy? They started getting these [ice buckets] and filling them up with mud from around the dressing room trailers. Sitting right across from us while they were doing that were like Henry Rollins and the guys from Alice in Chains.
And [Nine Inch Nails] were all like, "Those guys are gonna totally know what we are doing." So in between all that someone found a mud pit at the edge of the stage. So we all got in a sixteen-passenger van and went down to the stage and the band jumped in the mud. It was this big cathartic thing, and then they went onstage. But when they got up onstage none of the gear was working. And they were up there for like 20 minutes to half an hour in freezing cold mud. So they're up there in mud, and it's starting to dry and it's in your eyes on your hands and in your mouth … none of it was really thought out. But it looks amazing.
Trent's looking at me like, Fucking Cultice what are you doing? It's the biggest gig of their life. They're stressed out. They're freezing, they're covered with mud. They're equipment is really not working … The frame I shot right before the [close up of Trent's face], the makeup artist had gone and taken a towel and wiped the mud away from their eyes, especially Trent's eyes. So he looked like a raccoon. I said, "No dude you totally look like a raccoon." And I'm grabbing mud from the rest of him and patting it around his eyes so it looks like he just doesn't have a white stripe across his face.
We found out later that the mud pit was right next to all the Porta Potties. It was piss. It was overflow … I looked at it in the daylight the next day and was like, Ugh, that's definitely got piss and shit in it. Everyone could have gotten sick from it, but nobody did.