Few other photographers captured the unruly spirit of San Francisco’s indie music scene in the 1990s as well as Peter Ellenby, whose 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 Festival, Ellenby captured images of well-known acts including Death Cab for Cutie, the Flaming Lips, John Doe, Nada Surf and Bob Mould. 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 Lagoon, Chixdiggit, the Fastbacks and many others.
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.
“INn 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 bet 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, John, was 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.
“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, the de Young Museum and 111 Minna Gallery.
Ellenby passed his love of photography on to Ruby, organizing her first photography exhibition when she was just 3 years old on the walls of local restaurant Moshi Moshi, drawing considerable media attention.
“We celebrate anything creative, no matter how trivial,” Ellenby said.