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The iconic Lil Kim squat pose photo seen ‘round the world.

The iconic Lil Kim squat pose photo seen ‘round the world.

Photo Credit: Michael Lavine

Lil Kim's Squat Pose Is Iconic. Its Photographer Discusses it for the First Time

In a rare interview, Michael Lavine discussed the day he shot Lil Kim’s Hard Core cover, the booklet, and that feisty, nearly 30-year-old poster we just can’t get enough of.

This article has been handpicked to be included in our Hip Hop 50 collection as a noteworthy inclusion to the genre's rich and diverse narrative.

Even though Michael Lavine has photographed OutKast, Ghostface Killah, JAY-Z, Missy Elliott, Foxy Brown and many others, he didn’t start out capturing larger-than-life rap acts. Like multiple moments throughout his career, he just fell into the next phase of artistry, which was deifying a generation of Black storytellers.

Lavine’s interest in photography goes way back. He led his high school’s yearbook committee as the head photographer. Soon after, at Washington’s Evergreen State College, he studied traditional street photography in the style of Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand. While in Washington, he befriended the group responsible for the record label that became Sub Pop, and documented a then-emerging sound that, to this day, continues to inspire chart toppers. He wasn’t interested in being married to any particular genre or group though, because boxing yourself in isn’t the move. “I just never felt comfortable kind of being pigeonholed in anything to my own detriment. It's not good for business to do that,” he said. “You're supposed to kind of dive in, not pull away. But that's just how I was wired. I wanted to do my own thing.”

After fostering the trust of music industry greats (“I started working for Rick Rubin. He was one of my first clients and he hired me to shoot a bunch of his Death American acts because he was starting to do metal at that time,” Lavine recalled) and becoming a Black Book highlight, he fell into shooting some of the biggest rappers on the scene. His knowledge of capturing Black talent helped. “I was very good at skin color and doing warm skin tones and lighting people,” he said. “For some reason, I think there was this problem with white people who didn’t understand how to light Black people, which was just ridiculous.”

In short, he came, he saw, he snapped. Legacies were cemented in the process, most notably with an image of one of the greatest female rappers that has become one of hip-hop’s most beloved and recreated photos — Lil Kim’s iconic squat seen ‘round the world.

Below, the retired photographer gave Okayplayer a rare interview where, for the first time, he discussed the day he shot Lil Kim’s Hard Core cover, the booklet, and that feisty, nearly 30-year-old poster we just can’t get enough of.

This interview, which took place over multiple conversations, has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Michael Lavine has photographed everyone from Nirvana to De La Soul. But his iconic shoot of the Lil Kim squat pose is arguably one of his most recognizable.Michael Lavine has photographed everyone from Nirvana to De La Soul. But his iconic shoot of the Lil Kim squat pose is arguably one of his most recognizablePhoto courtesy of Michael Lavine

When did you first meet Lil Kim?

The date was 7/30/96. The anniversary just passed.

What was your first impression of her?

My impression overall was she was not like she is, as in the present. She was very quiet and under the thumb of Big Un. Remember Big Un?

Are you talking about Lance “Un” Rivera?

Yeah. He was there. He was the man in charge of her and was kind of in control of the shoot. Kim didn't say a word. I don't think I spoke to her once about anything, but we had a nice rapport in front of the camera. She was great and we made a lot of pictures together, but I felt like there was this circus going on around us and it was just me and her. You get this intimate bond with your subject a lot of times. She's in her lingerie and rolling around on a bed. So, I was trying to be my normal, respectable self, and being professional and making the images with her in tandem.

I would direct her like, "Let's try this. How about coming over here? What if we lean this way?" There were a lot of sets. We had rented a brownstone in Manhattan probably. It was a couple floors. It might have been two floors. So there was a bedroom, a little balcony, a fireplace, and those big doors.

I interviewed Kim last year and she told me she just kind of dropped into the squat pose naturally.

It was very spontaneous. When you're doing photo shoots, at least when I was working, it was an organic process and you let things happen. It's like a creative flow. Whenever you have a creative director there holding out a [composition] like, "Here, do it like this," it just was always bad and kind of nothing. It was like the safest way to get whatever it is that they had in their minds. But to make a great photograph you have to let things happen. You just have to go with it.

There was no layout for her to do that pose. It just was natural. Part of it, I spent a lot of time low angle, meaning I was always kind of lying on the floor, crouching down myself. So, it's possible that one of the reasons she did it was because I was probably sitting on the floor looking up at her because that's kind of how I do. My style was based on the hero, meaning my job was to make people look like heroes with iconic style.

My style was based on making people look cool and giving them lots of options. So, we would take a lot of different kinds of photographs. I used different kinds of lighting. We moved very quickly. A lot of things happened and it was very much an exciting experience. Somebody had a set prop person there bringing flowers. For the cover shot, we had all those flowers in front of the fire, and the bear skin rug we brought that in. It was a normal hip-hop shoot. I was intimidated. It was a very hard day. Everybody was being kind of tough and intimidating, and nobody would talk to me.

Were you scared?

I was never scared, but they all had guns. It's not that I was scared..scared is not the right word. It's more like I felt kind of out of place a little bit. I didn't even speak with Kim. I was dealing with Un mostly, and Un had a lot of ideas. So we were trying to do all the things. I was getting coverage for him. He wanted to have her hold the honey bear. Remember, there's a shot of her holding a honey bear on the black satin sheets? We had a lot of props. I had a props guy. His name was Jerry Schwartz. He was very good and we had brought a bunch of stuff.

So, for example, I remember Puffy came in for a shot and I did one shot with Puffy and Kim together. And Puffy, I worked with him many times. He didn't even say hello to me.

I was just like, “Really? Do you have to be that way? You're so cool you don't want to embarrass yourself talking to the photographer, actually acknowledging him?”

I never really felt at home around Puffy. I think at that time, because I don't think he's like this anymore, but at that time he was — and I know this happened to several other people that I've witnessed throughout their careers — they're really striving. It's very hard at the beginning and they'll push, push, push. They're just about their thing and they don't care about you. So, he was yelling at everybody all the time.

On set that day?

Not that day. Other days.

Oh, just in general?

Just in general. Barking orders. But that day he came in briefly and we did the shot and then he left. There's one shot, I don't know if you've seen it, of them together on a wall. I don't even know why he was there. I can't remember. He had something to do with the record, I guess.

"There was no layout for her to do that pose. It just was natural," Lavine said of the image."There was no layout for her to do that pose. It just was natural," Lavine said of the image.Photo Credit: Michael Lavine

Yes, he was on one of the songs from the album, and he was the album’s executive producer.

The image came out as the poster, “Lil Kim Coming Soon.” When you're there that day, you have no idea what images are going to stand out. Zero. There's just no way anyone could know. It isn't until there's time to contemplate the session when you edit it and you start to live with the images. And the graphic designer who, I can't remember who it was. Maybe you can find that out.


Let's see if there's a name on here. I don't know. Big Beat records? I don't know who that would've been. Atlantic maybe? I think it was Atlantic Records, no?

Lil Kim was [signed to] Atlantic.

It was Atlantic? Maybe it was, I don't know who it was. Liz Barrett? There were a bunch of people in the Atlantic art department at the time. I could probably look at the invoice.

Do you still have the invoice?

I don't know. Let's see if I do. '96...

If you do, you're the best records keeper of all time.

Yeah, there's Kim and Puffy right there. I have the whole job here. Ed and Carl were my assistants. The location was 24 West 10th Street. That's where we shot it. Here's something for you. Ready for this?


So, these are notes from my conversation with the manager. "Little Kim. Female. She's the other woman, somersaults in bedroom, not raunchy. Doorway of bedroom, satin sheets. Blouse, undone. Honey in hair, on bed and on phone. Down pants. Unbuttoning pants. No whips and chains. Classy, sexy, lush, lustful. Candles in the background. Fruits and chocolates." There you go.

The notes Lavine was given prior to the Lil Kim shoot.The notes Lavine was given prior to the Lil Kim shoot.Photo Credit: Michael Lavine

So, those were the notes that you were given before the shoot?

Yep. Those were the notes I was given before the shoot.

"Not raunchy" really stands out because I think you conveyed that.

"Not raunchy" — peekaboo, sexy shit.

Oh, man. Well, you did it. You accomplished the goal. And that actually flows really well into my next question, which was what do you believe they were trying to convey with the shoot?

It was funny that they hired me because I was known for not exploiting women in my photos. That was one of the reasons I didn't ever shoot women because back in the day, you were expected to shoot women with clothes off. I refused to do that and I never did it. I think this crouching picture was the raunchiest picture that I had ever done. Actually, that's not true. I did one once. But it was not my normal style, shall I say.

But also, it's an empowering image. I just generally felt uncomfortable sexualizing women throughout my career. That shoot was uncomfortable for me because I had to do that, and I think she was a little unclear as to what she was doing herself. I have no idea. I didn't talk to her. I'm not sure what she was thinking. Years later, I talked to her because we were both well complaining about this image being bootlegged.

She did mention that during our interview. That people were making t-shirts and making their own memorabilia.

It's completely illegal what they're doing, and it's got to be the most bootlegged image of mine. It's like whack-a-mole, you can't stop them. You send out your lawyers and then they just shut down and open with a different name. I could probably go out, spend some time and sue them all and she could, too. Who has time for that? If you have a lawyer and you have a lot of money, you could do that.

That sounds like a lot.

I mean, it's unfortunate. But she was talking about trying to do some merch of her own. The smart thing to do would be to get a deal with Merch Traffic or somebody that does merch, and then they would take care of trying to squash the illegal competition. But I thought that she was going to maybe have that happen this year, but I haven't heard from her.

But the image is just getting more and more famous. It's funny, you never know what kind of resonance an image is going to make and impress upon the culture at the time when you make it. It's rare that there's an instant classic. It's very hard to have that kind of impact these days just because of the nature of social media. Back then, there was a poster and that poster was the only poster. There was no other place to see it but the poster.

Now, it's everywhere.

That image really stands the test of time. Very few images stand the test of time like that image that I've worked on. It's one of my more recognizable images and I have a lot of them.

You do.

So, what can I say? It was a perfectly nice day. She was lovely. We had a nice rapport. The pictures came out great. I continued to work for many years after, and I'm retired now.

What made you jump into hip-hop photography?

Well, that's a funny question because I think my whole life, until recently, has been me falling into things that I wasn't planning on. I was driven to do photography so I was on that path. But if you would've told me my senior year, my fifth year of college, I was going to be shooting rock bands for a living for the rest of my life, I would've said, "Really?" I would've had no idea. But that fifth year [of college] I got a job to shoot a rock band and it just turned into —

The rest of your life?

It turned into the rest of my life. I never said, "I'm going to be a rock photographer." I never said that until I was one. Then, I had no plans on shooting hip-hop. It was an up-and-coming market at the time. I didn't know anything about it. I was friends with Kurt Cobain hanging out at rock shows, and really was unaware of a lot of hip-hop.

I did some hip-hop jobs early. I shot De La Soul, who I loved. I shot a few bands and hip-hop acts that were popular around that time. I got to know a lot of people in the business over time because I worked in it for so long. I was really close with Groovy Lou, who I loved as a stylist. June Ambrose. A lot of people.

But this was a defining moment. That shot, that poster when it came out, it made a lasting impact. It's still gaining speed. At that time, nobody knew who she was.

Did you know who she was?

I might've heard her name but not really. I just got hired on jobs. That's how I learned about people. I listened to the record before anybody else heard it. I got it first. But a lot of people were that way — I would learn about them on the job. That's how you learn because if I'm shooting 100 jobs a year, I don't have time to do anything but the job that's in front of me.

Did you listen to the album before the shoot?

Oh, I'm sure, of course. I don't remember the exact moment I listened to it but I always did. But that was part of the job, and we listened to it all day long during the shoot because that's what we did.

When did you realize that photo was really making waves?

Well, I think it happened over time. Obviously, the poster immediately was like, “OK, that's intense.”

Was it everywhere? Was it all over town?

It was everywhere. And when the poster came out it was powerful. It was a dramatic statement and it sent shock waves immediately. It was clearly influential at the time, I will say that. It was shocking and effective. It put her on the map.

Do you think it put her on the map more so than the cover?

Oh, yeah. The cover, who knows what the cover looks like? Nobody does.

Brooklyn White is a former features editor of ESSENCE and founder of the Cool Mamas Club.