From Olympia to Rock History
From Kurt Cobain to Jay-Z, Ellen Page to Esquire, Michael Lavine creates portraits of our times.
Some students arrive at Evergreen not knowing what they want to do with their lives. Michael Lavine '85 wasn't in that group.
He came close to wavering by almost signing up for an animation program in his freshman year, but at the last minute, he chose Camerawork instead. Photography, after all, was his passion, and he had already shown a knack for it. He started snapping pictures at a young age, and by high school, had sufficiently refined his picture making to become head yearbook photographer.
Though he didn't know then how he would turn his talent into a career, he says, "I knew that I liked photography. I noticed that I had a particular vision. I could see well. It was just a natural thing for me."
In the spring of 1983, armed with a 1958 Leica, he shot a series of pictures of eccentric-looking punk kids who hung out along "The Ave" in Seattle's U District. Lavine identified with this subculture. Back at Evergreen, he and the people in his coterie stood out. "We were the punks," he says. "We burned Grateful Dead albums with our lighters in Red Square."
When Lavine returned from his Seattle fieldwork, he spent hours in the darkroom, working on perfecting his film-developing skills. Over the next four years, he continued to study photographic art, took a painting class, and traveled overseas for four months, training his lens on European landscapes and architecture.
He became acquainted with another Greener, Bruce Pavitt, whose indie-music fanzine, Subterranean Pop—started as a project for credit at the college—evolved into the independent record label Sub Pop. In the late 1980s, this Seattle-based outfit was the first to sign on Green River, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Nirvana and other local bands, several of which attained superstardom in the 1990s. Enlisted as one of the label's primary photographers, Lavine was there from the beginning, documenting the characters behind the cultural phenomenon that sardonically came to be known as grunge.
Post-graduation, he moved to New York City and enrolled in Parsons School of Design to continue his studies. He interned with the celebrated fashion photographer Francesco Scavullo, learning more about the profession, and about studio shoots, lighting and processing. On his own, he experimented with technique, trying novel ways to capture and render his images. Five years later, The New York Times dubbed Lavine a "Style Maker," with a capital S and M.
By then, his "style"—he calls it "wild, in your face and very loud"—had established the 27-year-old photographer as "one of the most successful in pop music," according to the Times. He had shot album covers for White Zombie and Pussy Galore, the interiors of Sonic Youth's "Daydream Nation" and images of numerous Sub Pop bands, who would often stay at his loft—across from the legendary punk-rock club CBGB on Bleecker Street—when they were on tour and landed in New York.
With his reputation as a gifted portraitist on the rise, Lavine snagged record label jobs in other genres, too, such as hip hop—as well as such up-and-comers as Pearl Jam and the Smashing Pumpkins. He shot covers for Wu-Tang Clan, Lil' Kim, Puff Daddy and Foxy Brown. Some of his music industry work gained iconic status: the cover of Nirvana's "Nevermind," for instance, and Notorious B.I.G.'s final album, "Life After Death," which came out two weeks after Biggie's murder.
In 1996, Noise from the Underground, a collection of Lavine's photographs chronicling the alternative-rock scene in the 80s and early 90s, was published by Simon and Schuster. His second book, Grunge, was released last October. Produced with his friend and neighbor, Sonic Youth front man Thurston Moore—who penned the accompanying text—it features about 75 of the compositions he took on The Ave (and in Olympia) during his Evergreen days. These serve as prologue to the second half of the book, which contains about 75 photos of the bands he shot in the late 80s. As a visual narrative, the compilation illuminates the genesis of the grunge movement, connecting the street denizens to the bands in an arc of influence. Among those represented are Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love, Henry Rollins and more than three dozen bands.
In the afterword of his book, Lavine reminisces about his experience during this defining period: "I discovered there wasn't much difference between photographing a group of punks on the street and photographing rock bands in a studio. Back then we didn't have stylists and art directors and magazine editors breathing down our necks telling us what to do. It was just us having a blast and hanging out, a pure moment in time for making photographs…looking back now it's kind of amazing how I started out as just a kid with a camera in the middle of nowhere and ended up with the honor to witness and document such an important and powerful piece of rock history."
Lavine's oeuvre has swelled considerably since the days when he was focused on rebellious kids and brash bands. He still does work in the music industry, but he has added advertising, celebrity portraiture and editorial assignments to his enormous portfolio. His pictures have illustrated magazines, CD packages and posters. He has crafted promo shots for hit shows like 24, portrayed too many luminaries to list, and done on-the-street reportage and architectural photography to boot. His magazine clients include Vogue, Esquire, People, Outside and Lucky.
Lavine's style has become more polished over time, reflecting his desire to keep growing as an artist. Three years ago, he switched completely over to digital photography and he recently had his first video-slash-portrait session (with the late Senator Ted Kennedy's granddaughter, Kick). He believes this photo-shoot-meets-video-shoot strategy has "tremendous potential," especially in light of the technological leaps that have brought the ability to make great photos within the reach of everyone. On his blog (www.michaellavine.com/blog), he recently remarked, "Everywhere I look I see powerful imagery dominating the web. The challenge now is to fend off the competition. The challenge now is it to do something the other guy can't. The challenge now is to adapt or die. Personally, I am interested in enhancing my photographic vision with the wonders of motion and sound. To me that's a challenge I am excited about."
Today, Lavine lives in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood with his wife, Laurie Henzel—a co-founder and the art director of Bust magazine—and their two daughters, Olive, 15, and Penelope, 12. He no longer hangs out with the kids on the street, and his photography has taken him far beyond what he ever imagined at Evergreen, but his artistic vision remains essentially unchanged. It is a vision that has resonated with many audiences and established him as a highly regarded artist, doing work he considers "pretty glamorous." Still, he has his moments. "At times," he quips. "I wish I worked in animation."