Michael Lavine gravitated to the art and science of the portrait by choice, definition and temperament. “Portrait photography requires that you have a natural affinity to relate to other people,” he says. “I’m lucky, I’m a nice person—that’s part of it. The other part is to have a graphic sensibility and have a good vision. If you put those things together, you have a good portrait photographer.”
For over a quarter century, Lavine’s work—whether creating classic album images for Nirvana’s Nevermind or Lil’ Kim’s Hardcore, crafting promo shots for hit shows like 24 and Prison Break, minting everyone from Disney starlets to Jay-Z in everything from rap mags to high-end glossies, catching on-the-street reportage or even architectural centerpieces—has largely been about framing a subject at rest in a way that defines the subtle essentiality of his target while making the connection between viewed and viewer paramount. But it’s not all straightforward. His books, 1996’s Noise from the Underground and the recently released Grunge, chronicle his genre-defining work in the ’80s and early ’90s alternative-rock scene before his transition into hip-hop, where confidence and invention led him to experiment with angling, distortion, color-gel backgrounds and more. His ’90s-era hip-hop work is vibrant and extreme, pushing envelopes with technical precision, the result of a hippie-raised lensman who got his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from New York’s Parsons School of Design and moved between polar-opposite musical worlds.
“The indie-rock scene was all about bucking the establishment, where you have a style of music where the whole idea is antisuccess, really,” says Lavine. “Kurt Cobain was essentially against the idea of being popular; he hated his fans, it was really a low-key thing. To join the hip-hop scene was the opposite: Everybody wanted as much glitz and glam as you could get. It was a whole different mentality. I wasn’t involved with either [scene] personally. What I was involved with was helping them achieve their look and defining the look of their particular styles. One of the reasons I did well with the hip-hop community was that I have a very strong graphic sensibility, and I have a really clean and clear vision. I make people look great, and it’s a very powerful, straightforward but iconic image. I’m able to translate the chaos of a situation and turn it into something that looks better than it actually does. That’s my job, really.”