In November 1989, Sub Pop Records co-founders Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman headed to Europe to see how three of the label’s bands — Nirvana, Mudhoney and Tad — were faring on their overseas tours. Fortuitously, Pavitt brought along his Olympus pocket camera to document the trip.
What Pavitt ended up capturing was, he said, “a true turning point in the international stature of the Seattle music scene.” This was two years before Nirvana’s explosive success in the fall of 1991 with the release of its major label debut, “Nevermind.”
Pavitt’s photos first appeared in “Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe 1989,” a self-published e-book that came out last year. The book was then picked up by Brooklyn-based publisher Bazillion Points, which is reissuing it in physical form this month.
Pavitt will read from the book and sign copies at a release party Saturday at the Fantagraphics Bookstore in Georgetown. Seattle photographer Charles Peterson will D.J., and prints of Pavitt’s photos will be auctioned, the proceeds benefiting Seattle’s all-ages club The VERA Project.
Before the proliferation of cheap digital cameras, noted Pavitt, “being a photographer was kind of an expensive hobby. You’d shoot a roll of a film, and it might cost $20-$30 to get it processed. And you might only have a couple good shots. So it was kind of absurd the amount of pictures I took — about 500. I took more photos during those eight days than I ever had before.”
The new edition is expanded, with more of Pavitt’s photos, plus black-and-white live photos by London photographer Steve Double and a reprint of Nirvana’s cover story in the December, 1989 issue of Seattle music paper The Rocket.
“I call it a ‘microhistory’ because it just deals with eight days in the lives of these three bands,” Pavitt explained. “I realized that the photos I took really told a little story. It almost worked as a storyboard for a film.”
Indeed, along with photos of the bands onstage, there are numerous “ambient shots,” in Pavitt’s words, of offstage life: the musicians dining at local restaurants, visiting record stores and hitting tourist sites like Rome’s Colosseum.
“The book works as kind of a hipster travelogue,” Pavitt explained.
But there are also shots hinting at underlying stresses. The day after a tumultuous show in Rome, when Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain smashed his guitar and announced he was quitting the group, Pavitt took a shot of a subdued Cobain sitting on a stone wall, head in his hands, looking dejected and exhausted.
“I’m really proud of that photo,” said Pavitt. “It’s a very poignant moment. I think it expresses a lot.”
By the following week, Cobain rebounded, and Nirvana and Tad joined Mudhoney on stage for a sold out show at London’s Astoria Theatre, which Pavitt described as “definitely an epic moment. Jon and I were dead set on getting all three bands playing in London, and getting as many press people and photographers there as possible.”
The ecstatic crowd response depicted in Pavitt’s photos was a foretaste of what was to come.
6 p.m. Saturday at Fantagraphics Bookstore & Gallery, 1201 S. Vale St., Seattle; free
(206-658-0110 or fantagraphics.com).