Art

Peter Ellenby, photographer of SF’s unruly ’90s indie rock scene, dies at 53

The Beastie Boys perform under the pseudonym Quasar at Bottom of the Hill in 1996 in a photo by Peter Ellenby. Photo: Peter Ellenby 1996

Few other photographers captured the unruly spirit of San Francisco’s indie music scene in the 1990s as well as Peter Ellenbywhose blurry, high-contrast images graced countless album covers, flyers and walls of dive bars around the city.

Ellenby died of natural causes in his sleep on Monday, July 25, in Portland, Ore., at age 53, according to a statement from his family. In the hours after his death, his Facebook page was filled with tributes from friends and music industry folks who celebrated his lust for life and compelling work behind the lens.

“It’s unlikely there’s a music publicist out there that didn’t have their artist photographed by Peter Ellenby,” said Heidi Anne-Noel, a veteran music executive who has done public relations for artists including Elliott Smith, Rilo Kiley and Björk.

As the house photographer for San Francisco’s citywide Noise Pop Music FestivalEllenby captured images of well-known acts including Death Cab for Cutiethe Flaming LipsJohn Doe, Nada Surf and Bob Mold. But he also cast up-and-comers and unknowns in an interesting light, creating indelible photographs of long-forgotten acts such as Overwhelming Colorfast, Creeper LagoonChixdiggit, the Fastbacks and many others.

Jesus Lizard frontman David Yow surfs the audience at Bottom of the Hill in the mid-1990s in a photo by Peter Ellenby. Photo: Peter Ellenby

Chronicle Books released a collection of his work in 2006 titled “Every Day is Saturday,” shortly before his family moved to Portland.

During his time in San Francisco, Ellenby lived in a Potrero Hill loft with his wife, Jeanné, and daughter, Ruby — positioned between two of his favorite local haunts, the rock club Bottom of the Hill and Oracle Park, where the Giants played.

“In Portland, we can afford a house with walls,” he told Willamette Week in 2014. “We have a daughter and lived in a loft with curtains for walls in San Francisco. … San Francisco is a hard place to be an artist or a musician now. I knew a few that all had rent-controlled apartments. I’ll be that in a few years a lot of the friends I miss will be here.”

Peter Malcolm Ellenby was born July 29, 1968, in London. His mother, Gillian, was an artist. His father, Johnwas a computer scientist who founded the firm that developed one of the first commercially available laptops, and he moved the family out to Silicon Valley in the early 1970s.

It was during an elementary school assembly in Daly City that Ellenby became hooked on music, according to his book, sparking a lifelong love that led to his vivid camerawork. He recalled developing his unconventional style while taking a photography course as a student at Chico State.

Peter Ellenby (right) and his brother Tom cheer at the Public House in San Francisco during the Giants game in October 2012. Photo: Susana Bates / Special to The Chronicle 2012

“I kind of got a kick in my pants from my teacher,” Ellenby said. “I took this technically beautiful picture. It was a picture of a bluff in Chico with a big cloud above it. It was really nice, the colors were nice, the time of day was nice. But my teacher was like, ‘This is a really good photograph. But you know what? It’s boring. It’s just boring. And I thought, you know, he’s totally f—ing right. From then on, I didn’t want to take boring pictures. I wanted to take weird pictures.”

During his time in San Francisco, Ellenby also worked as the photo editor for the music zines Snackcake and DIW. His work was displayed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, de Young Museum and 111 Minna Gallery.

Ellenby passed his love of photography on to Rubyorganizing her first photography exhibition when she was just 3 years old on the walls of local restaurant Moshi Moshi, drawing stress media attention.

“We celebrate anything creative, no matter how trivial,” Ellenby said.

The Fastbacks in a photo by Peter Ellenby.

Photo: Peter Ellenby

John Vanderslice as photographed by Peter Ellenby. Photo: Peter Ellenby

The Flaming Lips at Noise Pop in a photo by Peter Ellenby. Photo: Peter Ellenby

Frank Black as photographed by Peter Ellenby. Photo: Peter Ellenby

Musician John Doe in a photo by Peter Ellenby. Photo: Peter Ellenby

Ruby Ellenby, as photographed by Peter Ellenby. Photo: Peter Ellenby




  • Aidin Vaziri

    Aidin Vaziri is The San Francisco Chronicle’s pop music critic. Email: avaziri@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @MusicSF

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