On View: Michael Lavine's Photos of Nirvana Before They Were Famous

By David Schonauer   Monday January 15, 2018

“They were just kids. I was a kid, too,” says Michael Lavine.

In the summer of 1990, a relatively unknown rock band from Seattle traveled to New York City, where Levine photographed them in his studio for a session arranged by Sub Pop Records owner Bruce Pavitt. Lavine, a PPD reader whose work has been included in the American Photography annual, had lived earlier in Seattle for a short period at the birth of the grunge era and would go on to photograph bands like Mudhoney, The Fluid, Tad, Swallow, Pussy Galore, Urge Overkill, Soundgarden and Sonic Youth. In 2009 NME  noted that Lavine’s name became “synonymous with the grunge era.”  

But until that day in 1990, he’d never met Nirvana. “[T]hey showed up at my door,” he recalls. By “they” Lavine means guitarist Kurt Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic, and drummer Chad Channing.

It wouldn’t be the last time he worked with the band: Lavine ended up photographing Nirvana four times in total, including sessions with  drummer Dave Grohl. Among the shoots was one in Los Angeles for the the band’s album “Nevermind.”

“Lavine’s photographs tell the story of a rise and fall, of paradise and perdition," notes Dazed, which recently spotlighted an exhibition of the photographer’s Nirvana pictures at the Ono Arte Contemporanea  in Bologna, Italy. The exhibition is meant to celebrate what would have been Cobain’s 50th year on Earth, notes the magazine.

New York City, April 25, 1990

“Nevermind" session, Los Angeles, May 23, 1991

New York City, January 12, 1992

Lavine, who grew up in Denver, moved to Seattle briefly after high school. “I drove my Chevy Impala and had a lot of crazy adventures – a crash, got arrested, taking mushrooms – but I made it to Seattle,” he tells Dazed. “I lived with a couple of roommates in an apartment on Wallingford — now it’s really fancy, but at the time it was kind of run down. Those guys were punk, and they taught me everything within a week. That was my awakening. I was immediately drawn to the music and energy of the punk scene.”

Lavine moved to Olympia, Washington, to attend Evergreen State College, where he began studying photography. While visiting friends in Seattle, he shot a photo of “three guys on a bench” near The Ave, a street in the University district where punks hung out.

“It really stood out and everyone was like, ‘You need to do that!’” he says. The encouragement prompted Lavine to move to New York, where he studied photography at Parson’s School of Design.

“The next thing that happened was really weird,” Lavine tells Dazed. “I was in the office at the photography department, and somebody called up. They said, ‘Hey, we have a band. Can anyone take our picture?’ It was Tino Martinez from Pussy Galore, so they came over to the school and I shot the cover of the album "Right Now." That was 1987.”

He has vivid memories of his first session with Nirvana.

“Krist and Chad came up; Krist told me, ‘Kurt’s asleep in the van. We’ll wake him up in a little while,’” recalls Lavine. “That turned into the thing that always was; Kurt was asleep somewhere. He eventually came up. The photo shoot was very relaxed, we were just hanging out. There was no hair and make-up, no styling. I don’t remember what we ate, but we listened to the Stooges.”

New York City, January 11, 1992

“Nevermind" session, Los Angeles, May 23, 1991

Nevermind session, Los Angeles, May 23, 1991

Later, Lavine was offered the chance to shoot for the band’s next album, “Nevermind.”

“The photo session was not that eventful,” Lavine tells Dazed. “I went to the studio where they were recording and Kurt was asleep on the couch. The producer played ‘Teen Spirit’ for me and I was like, ‘Wow, this is great!’ Then we went out for tacos for lunch. We did the photo shoot the next day and shot off of Santa Monica Boulevard and North Orange.”

New York City, January 11, 1992

Lavine says his relationship with Cobain was “friendly.”

“I would see him at parties and we would talk,” he says. “I had been clean and sober, while he was a drug addict. I was the guy that they would throw at Kurt when they were worried about his drug use, like, ‘Oh look, here’s Michael. He’s your friend. He’s clean.’”

The last time Cobain came to Lavine’s studio was in 1992, before the band appeared on Saturday Night Live.

“He showed up wasted,” Lavine tells Dazed. “Everyone was like, ‘What the hell?’ The tension was really high. The band was really awkward. Kurt was asleep in my bed for a long time. Then he passed out in a chair. At one point he said, ‘Michael, do you have the Flipper record?’ I said, ‘Of course I have the Flipper record.’ I pulled it out, I thought he wanted to listen to it. Instead, he pulled out a pen and he copied the Flipper artwork onto his t-shirt. He put the shirt on and that’s the shirt he wore in the photos.”

Sassy photo shoot, New York City, January 12

He later shot Cobain and Courtney Love for Sassy magazine. It was the last time he photographed Cobain.

“Afterwards, they [Cobain and Love] called and said that they didn’t want use the pictures. We were like, ‘What?’ They didn’t want to be on the cover and had changed their mind,” recalls Lavine. “We were like, ‘No, wait. There are great photos. You have to see them!’ We showed them the photos and they approved the kiss for the cover. I think that they were uncomfortable with doing that kind of magazine cover.”
At top: Nirvana, New York City, April 25, 1990


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