That is what I actually said – aloud – while reading Nirvana by American artist Jason Lazarus, and published by London-based Here Press. It was in response to a ridiculous love-lorn story that accompanies a particular photograph of a tanned teenage boy in a bath, not too unlike a Tillmans photo it must be said. My next thought, after exclaiming loudly, was to show this book to my older brother, the person who introduced the music of Nirvana to me as a teenager.
And this is exactly what Nirvana is about: a series of collected photographs (Lazarus spent two years collecting them from 2009-2011), replete with accompanying bursts of text from each photograph’s owner. The people in the images are the people who introduced Nirvana to each author. It is a kind of visual pass-the-parcel reflecting the social pass-the-parcel that is popular culture. In this case, the McGuffin is the music of Nirvana, the post-post-Punk band that defined a generation growing up in the 90’s, smoking pot and wearing ripped jeans. Not too young to forget albums, physical objects that were bought and played and copied and loaned and lost. But most importantly, they held memories and reminded us of the time we were first introduced to this band or that.
To be honest, Nirvana doesn’t strike one much as an ‘end-of-year-list’ contender. Printed on matt black paper, and Japanese bound (folded pages), it contains a group of awkward looking individuals photographed through the 90’s so the fashion is questionable not to mention the grainy, uncomposed, vernacular aesthetic of the images. Basically, it looks like the kind of book you’d expect from the grunge scene, it looks like a ‘zine’, and because of this it works perfectly.
Some of the stories, and they can vary from one sentence to five at the most, are nostalgic, some are amusing and some are downright tragic. There are tales of growing pains of course, getting high, parents and part-time parents; there are tales of sex, from losing virginities to dorm room romps to stalkers; there are tales of woe, from motorcycle accidents to broken backs and AIDS. Just when you feel you are getting comfortable flicking between the words on the back cover to the flashed out face in the photo, something comes along and unsettles you.
The corresponding joy and pathos that are carried within the individual images and texts do create a sense of nostalgia for the reader, admittedly of a certain age. A lot of us in our thirties remember the albums and bands that are mentioned, the angst and the situations. Credit needs to be given to Lazarus for his concept, and it is the variation within the collection that helps move the book along without it getting sentimental. The use of analogue film photography also brings its own sense of nostalgia, but this is tempered by the content within the imagery, after all, they were not made to be art and in most cases exist as remnants of a whim. All this, needless to say, infers a yearning for our own nirvana, our own transcendent state free from suffering, desire and self, that place we look to in our youth and look back on in our adulthood.
So much is written about photography’s relationship to memory, with overwhelming and grand ideas or morose psychology, it can become tedious and academic. Yet a book such as this can breathe new life into the subject, because it is as much about the power of photography to communicate a story, as it is about music to do the same, Nirvana is strikingly subtle. If it were an album you’d have to run straight to your best friend’s house and play it for them.
You can purchase a copy of Nirvana from here
*Apologies for the slightly damaged book in the photo at top, it traveled all the way back from Paris Photo…