[25 October 2009]
“I’m looking for something no one seems to have.” Before anyone heard singer Mark Arm spit-spray the microphone on Sub Pop’s first Mudhoney EP, photographer Michael Lavine was in Seattle, looking for something that no one in town seemed to have—no super-fuzz, no flannel fetishes.
What he found and photographed in late-‘80s Seattle—images that make up the best portion of Grunge, Lavine’s second book—were groups of plainclothes punks searching the horizons of the Pacific Northwest for some sort of regional resonance. In the book’s opening photo, “Sir Plus”, a group of androgynous teenagers stand expectantly near a sign that reads “Northwest Native: Sportclothes for Fun and Games”. A handmade sign beneath advertises “Rugby wear on sale”; a military surplus store sits across the street, waiting to be ransacked for the rags and riches that would, like it or not, cloak a genre.
“Bad name. Lame name, actually,” writes Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore in his introduction to Lavine’s photos. “On one hand, that word was ridiculous… on the other hand, just beautiful: A smart and amusing shrug within the American scream-dream.” A shrug because grunge happened too fast to claim itself—done in by Marc Jacobs’ infamous collection for Perry Ellis, overeager record executives, a blonde boy with a gun.
Grunge succeeds in those photos that capture a Seattle local (or once, a long-haired Billy Corgan) pre-shrug, when eyes still looked for a future rather than rolled in disgust at the path they found themselves on. Sabrina, an Olympia spike-head, stands in front of painstakingly ornamented door; she wears mismatched plaids and a “Touch me, I’m sick” stare. It’s one of several loaded moments amidst a few blanks—see Lavine’s shots of Washington “Mods” in parkas and Union Jacks.
When Grunge moves into band photos, it’s Lavine’s earliest work—an ‘87 session with White Zombie, Sub Pop shots of Sonic Youth and Mudhoney circa ‘88—that signals the arrival of a scene or two. Lavine’s Richard Avedon-style portraits of Rob Zombie and Sean Yseult and stark studio shots of the ‘Honey crew place all grunge genesis stories in the looks of the subjects—the regional fashions and expressions of what punk wrought.
But as Lavine moves closer to 1993—further from Nevermind, closer to In Utero—he grows more concerned with constructing stories around his shoots. Pearl Jam appears before a distorted woods scene, Eddie Vedder’s mouth taped shut; Royal Trux gets the jailbreak spotlight treatment and throws a smug, sexual insolence towards the lens. Lavine offers Soundgarden in 1989 and again in 1990. In the former, Chris Cornell is off-kilter, too young—his eyes are as fearless as his chest is hairless. In the latter, he puts a revolver in his mouth while guitarist Kim Thayil goes wide-eyed. Don’t dare him, his expression reads. Grunge is dangerous, after all.
No, not dangerous. A challenge, sure—but more an inward push than outward, more an effort to see something that no one has seen than a fight to sell something no one has sold. Years before Cobain fell into Love, Lavine snapped a dark and stormy man in a winter coat and a regal blonde woman beside him in Seattle, 1983. His eyes question right, hers dare directly at the camera.
The shot is mirrored in a 1992 photo of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love near the book’s end. Each grips the other—his thumb showing a half-moon bruise, her arms milky and clean—and looks away from the camera. By the end of Grunge, both Lavine and his subjects seem to have their eyes set on other styles and stories. But the rare, vulnerable moments of anticipation and acceptance make Grunge most memorable.