Pin It
Nirvana by Michael Lavine
New York City, January 11, 1992© Michael Lavine

Photos of Nirvana before they took over the world

Photographer Michael Lavine tells us what it was like shooting the band from their earliest years right up to Kurt Cobain’s death

During the summer of 1990, an unknown band flew from Seattle to New York to gig in the underground punk scene. While they were in town they dropped by photographer Michael Lavine’s Bleecker Street studio for a session arranged by Sub Pop Records owner Bruce Pavitt. Going by the name Nirvana, the group featured singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic, and drummer Chad Channing. They had been playing together for a few years but hadn’t yet broken through. As Lavine’s photos from that fateful day reveal, they were just a couple of kids living life on their terms.

Lavine would shoot the band a total of four times, including for cover of their seminal Nevermind album, which they released the following year. The album blew up, selling over 30 million copies worldwide and bringing grunge to a mainstream audience. But for Nirvana, success had a tumultuous effect, and as their star rose, the band began to plummet into the abyss. By the time Lavine photographed the final studio sessions on a weekend in 1992, the group was reaching breaking point.

Lavine’s photographs tell the story of a rise and fall, of paradise and perdition. To celebrate what would have been Cobain’s 50th year on earth, Ono Arte Contemporanea in Bologna, Italy presents Kurt Cobain 50: The Grunge Photographs of Michael Lavine, a selection of iconic and never-before-seen images from his archive, which runs from now through to January 31, 2018. Lavine shares his memories of this historic chapter of music history.

You started out in Seattle, when the grunge scene was just emerging in the 1980s. Could speak about how the scene became a catalyst for your work as a photographer?

Michael Lavine: People think I’m from Seattle, when actually, I only lived there for nine months. I’m from Denver and moved 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. 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.

That fall, I moved down to Olympia to go to Evergreen State College, and that’s when I started studying photography. I took a program called ‘Camerawork’ that was an immersive 15-credit photography class. All we did was shoot pictures, print them, and critique them all day long, every day.

I remember going up to Seattle, visiting my friends, and walking around the The Ave, a street in the University district where all the punks hung out. I took a picture of three guys on a bench. It really stood out and everyone was like, ‘You need to do that!’ That was 1983. In 1985, I moved to New York and enrolled in Parson’s to study photography. I became very involved in the music scene as a fan. I remember seeing a girl at the Parson’s cafeteria that I recognized from a show. I introduced myself and she said, ‘Oh cool, my name is Sean (Yseult). I have a band. Do you want to take our photograph?’ So I did a photoshoot with her and her band – and it was White Zombie’s first album cover.

The next thing that happened was really weird. 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.

“I took Iggy Pop to see Nirvana and introduced Iggy to Kurt Cobain. After that, Iggy basically spent the evening fending off fans” – Michael Lavine

How did you begin working for Sub Pop Records?

Michael Lavine: That same year, my friend Bruce Pavitt called me. I knew him from Evergreen. He had moved to Seattle and started a record store on Capitol Hill. I used to go in there when I was shooting those kids. He said, ‘Hey, I’m coming to New York. Do you think I could crash with you?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ I took him to the Pussy Galore show. He was like, ‘Wow, this scene is fucking incredible!’ He was thinking about moving to New York but thought it was too intense, so he decided to stay in Seattle and start his own record label: Sub Pop.

In March 1988, Bruce flew me to Seattle and I did photo sessions with Mudhoney, The Fluid, Tad, and Swallow over a period of a couple of days. The Mudhoney photo ended up on the cover of the ‘Touch Me I’m Sick’ single. From that point on, any time a Sub Pop band was in New York, they would come to my studio on Bleecker Street and I would take their pictures. That’s what happened with Nirvana in 1990 – they showed up at my studio. I had never met them before.

Could you take us back to that first meeting – what were they like?

Michael Lavine: They were just kids. I was a kid, too, and we were taking pictures for fun. Krist (Novoselic) and Chad (Channing) came up; Krist told me, ‘Kurt’s asleep in the van. We’ll wake him up in a little while.’ That turned into the thing that always was: Kurt was asleep somewhere. He eventually came up. The photoshoot 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.

I shot Nirvana on April 25. A week later I shot Iggy Pop. I played Nirvana for Iggy and he loved it. He was like, ‘Wow this is great!’ and I was like, ‘They’re playing at the Pyramid – let’s go.’ There’s no way to translate the kind of legendary status at the Iggy Pop had at that time in that space. He was the Godfather of the whole thing. It was a very underground scene. It was an unknown world. People would tour and knew each other from the shows, but it was a very small scene. I took Iggy Pop to see Nirvana and introduced Iggy to Kurt Cobain. After that, Iggy basically spent the evening fending off fans.

The Pyramid show was also an important moment in Nirvana’s history. What happened was Chad was really late. Kurt was really mad and fired him right after that. That’s when they hired Dave Grohl.

I love seeing history unfold before your eyes! Could you take us through the Nevermind album cover shoot?

Michael Lavine: It was a year later. Nirvana had left Sub Pop and signed to Geffen. I was already working for Geffen because Rick Rubin had introduced me to the Creative Director there. Geffen called me and was like, ‘Hey, do you want to shoot Nirvana’s album?’

The photo session was not that eventful. 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 photoshoot the next day and shot off of Santa Monica Boulevard and North Orange.

What was your relationship with Kurt like?

Michael Lavine: In 1991, somewhere along the way, Bruce Pavitt asked if I wanted to shoot a video of Nirvana. I was like, ‘I don’t know anything about videos but I have this friend who does – Steve Brown.’ So Steve shot a video of Nirvana in my loft on Bleecker Street for ‘In Bloom’.

Steve, Kurt, and I got along really well. Whenever Kurt came to town, Steve and I would get together with him. One time, we had dinner at some fancy restaurant in midtown. (Journalist) Michael Azerrad was there. Kurt looked like a ragamuffin and when he went to the bathroom, they tried to throw him out. They didn’t know he was a guest. He as fine at the meal but by the end, he started staggering and he staggered out and barely made it down the street. Michael took him back to the hotel.

Our relationship was friendly. I would see him at parties and we would talk. 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.’

“After Saturday Night Live and the Sassy cover, I never photographed Kurt again. During that time, he was all messed up. He wasn’t prepared to deal with the fame” – Michael Lavine

Could you talk about the 1992 shoot at your studio before they went on Saturday Night Live?

Michael Lavine: The last time Kurt came to my studio was in 92. He showed up wasted. 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.

Kurt was so stoned that he couldn’t open his eyes. If you look at the photo for In Utero, in the original version – I think they took it out of later pressings – there’s a full bleed photo of Kurt on the inside with red hair leaning towards the camera prying his eye open and it was maximum pinned. I went to the Saturday Night Live show and he was better then. He was wasted at the photoshoot, but when you’re stoned on dope, you come in and out. At one point, he told me, ‘I love Courtney because she’s the kind of woman who will stand up in a room and smash a glass table for no reason. I love that about her.’

Woah. So, what was it like the next day, when you were shooting both Kurt and Courtney for Sassy?

Michael Lavine: It was a fashion shoot and there was an editor, a hair and make-up person, and a stylist. Courtney was there. The manager was there. It was a big to-do and Kurt was very passive. He didn’t say much, but he wasn’t stoned. They stood there and did their thing.

Afterwards, they 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. 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. It was the first time they had done a studio shoot together; it was probably the only studio shoot that they ever did together.

After Saturday Night Live and the Sassy cover, I never photographed Kurt again. During that time, he was all messed up. He wasn’t prepared to deal with the fame. I heard recently that he tried to pull himself together and decided to play the game. He did it for a little while but it didn’t last long. I remember I was in Seattle and went to visit him. They had rented a giant house and it was empty. There was a Hot Wheels racetrack on the floor. Kurt was going through boxes of fan mail. People from all over the world were sending him gifts like underwear and candy. He was just trying to figure out how to deal with all this fame.

Kurt Cobain 50: The Grunge Photographs of Michael Lavine runs at Ono Arte Contemporanea in Bologna, Italy until January 31, 2018