Nirvana: Personal Snapshots in the Unmistakable 90s

Courtesy of Jason Lazarus
Courtesy of Jason Lazarus
Here are Jeff and I in the suburbs of Chicago. He gave me my first cigarette and taught me "Come As You Are" on guitar. He was the rebel of our group, obsessed with Cobain. I haven't been able to track him down for years.

In 2007, Chicago-based multimedia artist Jason Lazarus set out to memorialize a unique pop-cultural moment by asking a seemingly simple question of his friends: “Who first introduced you to the band Nirvana?”

The answers and the personal photographs Lazarus collected in response to that query now constitute a time capsule, of sorts. First displayed as a series of large-scale archival reproductions of those personal photographs — each with a hand-written text overlay in the contributor’s own words — the project, titled Nirvana, is now available as a book debuting at The NY Art Book Fair this month.

Flipping through Nirvana (Here Press, 2013) can, at times, feel like an encounter with a stranger’s eerily familiar family photo album. But one needn’t be a Nirvana fan in order to find that the saturated colors and the lo-tech spontaneity of the pictures evoke the look, the feel and the utterly distinctive tech toys (“disposable” cameras!) of the early 1990s.

Courtesy of Jason Lazarus

Courtesy of Jason Lazarus

An installation view of the Nirvana exhibition with hand-written captions on the bottom of each print.

The quotations from the project’s contributors, coupled with the disarming personal snapshots, capture something of an era that’s recognizable and, at the same time, impossibly distant. After all, it’s been more than two decades since Cobain and company emerged as reluctant standard bearers of a punk-metal juggernaut known as Grunge. (The band’s landmark album, Nevermind, was released 22 years ago today.)

As compelling, and even endearing, as the photographs are, the quotes that accompany the pictures are often, in their own way, more moving. Unadorned, straightforward, they convey the intensity that so frequently informs personal milestones — those times when we transition, willingly or not, from one chapter to the next in our lives.

In the end, the fleeting instants captured in each photograph of Nirvana reflect the essence of the band itself. After the unexpected, massive success of Nevermind (it has sold more than 30 million copies since its release in 1991), they produced just one more album before Kurt Cobain’s suicide in April 1994. In light of the band’s brief, influential life, the wistful nature of Nirvana suggests that all of our significant “firsts” are transformed into mementos in our own minds. We remember them, and they unite us, because — while the details might vary — we’ve all experienced the same highs and lows. We’ve all had our own “Ah ha!” Nirvana moments, and the richness of those experiences shape who and what we become.

Who introduced you to Nirvana?

Jason Lazarus is a Chicago-based artist, curator and writer. Nirvana (2013) is published by Here Press.

Bridget Harris is an associate photo editor at TIME.

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