September 24, 2013 4:00 AM EDT

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.

The reason behind the name of the April 27 episode of Game of Thrones, "Oathkeeper," became obvious about halfway through the show: Jaime Lannister gives Brienne his Valyrian steel sword — a sword he can't make proper use of now that he's missing a hand — and sends her off to keep their promise to find the Stark girls. "They say all the best swords have names," he tells her. What will hers be called? Oathkeeper, natch. Thus Oathkeeper joins a long line of great Thrones swords with names — like Ice (Ned Stark's sword, and the source of the steel for Oathkeeper), Widow's Wail (the other sword made from that steel, which went to Joffrey as a wedding present), Needle (Arya's blade), Lightbringer (Stannis' enchanted sword) and Longclaw (the Mormont sword). But is Jaime right about swords and their names? Game of Thrones is fantasy (duh) but its links to medieval-ish history are many. At first, the answer seems obvious: once again, duh. Arthur had Excalibur. Charlemagne had Joyeuse. El Cid had Colada. (Nor is sword-naming limited to European history; Asian and Near Eastern traditions have swords of their own, but they're less relevant to Game of Thrones.) But, though those legendary swordsmen don't approach GoT levels of obvious fiction, the line between medieval folklore and medieval history can get a little blurry when it comes to famous swords. When it comes to King Arthur, for example, historians are still unsure exactly how much historical fifth-century truth lies behind the stories of the king himself — much less his sword. The Arthur story/myth/history illustrates why it's so hard to tell where the custom of sword-naming began: the fact that so many myths involve named swords suggests that there was some real-life practice behind the custom, but the myths are so old — and so likely to have influenced the myths that came after — that it's hard to tell. Swords and scabbards with inscriptions are definitely in the historical/archeological record, but many of those inscriptions are merely the equivalent of a name tag in a jacket or the stamp of the craftsman; as for the impressive-sounding names like those on GoT, historians have a chicken/egg problem with the myth and the reality of sword-naming. As Hilda Ellis Davidson explains in her book The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England, literature and folklore have helped pass down the names of famous swords through the ages (in her area of expertise, the earliest examples are in 10th-century heraldic poems based on earlier spoken traditions) but it's "hard to determine how far the naming of swords was a literary convention only, and how far it existed as a practice among Anglo-Saxons and Vikings of an earlier period." One archeological example cited by Davidson mentions runes on spearheads, which may have been meant to instill the weapon with the qualities described by the runes, but there's no way to know for sure whether the naming was a matter of magic or one of bragging. The further along history goes, the less doubt there is — fifth-century Excalibur is a mystery; a real Joyeuse can be seen in the Louvre, though its oldest parts are dated to the 10th century and Charlemagne lives hundreds of years before that — but even then the source of the tradition is cloudy. Whatever the source, sword-naming started to taper off by the time the Middle Ages were ending — until now!
Courtesy of Jason Lazarus

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.


Contact us at letters@time.com.

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