‘I always thought, that Manchester should have a museum of popular culture. I was going to donate all my memorabilia to it, have a Kevin Cummins room.’
from The Observer 20 September 2009
Factory club, 1979. Courtesy of Kevin Cummins
Manchester’s music scene in a few dates
1976: The Sex Pistols play at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Castelfield (inner city area of Manchester)
1978: Factory Records, the independent record label starts
1979: Factory Records releases Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures
1982: The nightclub The Haçienda opens and becomes the centre of the local acid house and rave scene
1990: The Happy Mondays release Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches and Manchester is dubbed Madchester
Kevin Cummins made his debut in the mid 1970s, when he documented the emerging punk and rock scene in Manchester with bands like the Buzzcocks or Joy Division. He has photographed all the major musicians since then, including Marc Bolan, David Bowie, The Smiths, The Sex Pistols, The Clash, Patti Smith, R.E.M., Mick Jagger, Manic Street Preachers, Foo Fighters…
His work can be seen on many record sleeves and book jackets. It encompasses various collaborations, with press playing a major role. He was a founding contributor to The Face, a chief photographer for New Musical Express during ten years, and he has contributed to many major UK publications, such as The Times, The Guardian, The Observer, The Big Issue, Vogue, Mojo, Esquire, Sleaze Nation and Elle. He also played a major role in establishing City Life, Manchester’s what’s on guide.
In 1986 he was commissioned by Wigan Heritage Centre to photograph contemporary life in Wigan – an important period for the town due to the widespread closure of Britain’s coal mines.
He worked extensively with The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester when it opened in the late 1970s. Later on, he collaborated with The Royal Opera House, The Royal Northern Ballet, The Liverpool Playhouse and The Oxford Playhouse. He is now commissioned by The National Theatre in London on a regular basis.
Being a good photographer is not just about taking good pictures. You also have to be inventive and take advantage of what could be a critical situation. What would you do if the band you are supposed to shoot outdoors does not show up until 6PM when the light is vanishing? In Spain for a NME session with the Happy Mondays, he actually did the shooting on the roof of the hotel, immortalising Shawn Ryder standing with the E letter (see below). This photograph became an iconic image for the Madchester era.
Kevin admits he never liked the studio shooting because it is not a natural environment for the people. He prefers to put them in a place they feel comfortable, a place they belong to. When he shot the famous picture of Joy Division on a snow-covered bridge in Manchester (see at the very end of the article), he wanted to frame them in their environment. He used a 20 mm lens to get the wide perspective, so it seems that they are standing further away. For Kevin, ‘That’s an architectural shot with a band in it.’
His most recent book Manchester: Looking for the Light through the Pouring Rain was released in 2009. It is a beautiful tribute to his home city of Manchester through its pop history and its bands. It also features essays written by the NME writers Paul Morley, Stuart Maconie, Gavin Martin and John Harris. The book has four main sections, corresponding to main musical moments: punk, indie, Madchester and Britpop.
Hotel Subur Maritim, Stiges, Spain, 11 March 1990. Courtesy of Kevin Cummins
Kevin Cummins is a busy man. I had the chance to meet him in London. We discussed photography, his work and of course, Manchester.
Tell me about yourself
I went to a grammar school, and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I think that in England, if like me you go to an all boys Catholic grammar school, it’s a hot-house really to go to university, with very little thought about what you are going to do beyond that, purely to get you to carry on with an education. And I’d always been interested in photography, because my father and my mother’s father – my maternal grandfather – were both keen amateur photographers. So probably from the age of five I was processing; we had a dark room at home and I came to London on some holidays, and took some photographs, and I processed and printed them. I was about five years old and I suppose at that age, you are more interested in the image that comes up on the paper, and that was the excitement, rather than composition, it’s purely this act of magic almost. And then I was due to go to Warwick University to read English, and I met someone that Summer who suggested I should go to do a photography or art degree because that has always been my interest, so at the last minute I changed course and went to study photography, and that was it.
What are you looking for when you process an image?
I think it is different every time. When you work like I do, photographing people mainly, the most important thing for a portrait is to capture something of your sitter in the shot. And I think a lot of photographers tend to want to impose their values on that picture rather than the values of the subject. And so they develop a technique or something which is almost like a signature, that will identify that picture as that photographer’s picture. The subject matter can be anything, the subject is a vanity. But the way I prefer to work is to spend time with people if I can, so I get to know them. Or over the years you develop a working relationship with people so it is quite comfortable when you work, you are moving on a step further because there’s mutual trust there. I’ve worked with quite a lot of people now for thirty years or more, and I am still photographing people I was photographing in the mid-1970s. That is a testimony to the work I do.
But I think the most important thing when you see a photograph of somebody is it’s got to give you something back, it’s got to tell you about that person. You almost shouldn’t need a caption with a picture to tell you more than you thought it was telling you, you should be able to revisit it, and it tells that story.
Nigel, Neil, Simon, Paul and Dave at Prenton Park (Tranmere Rovers FC), 1985.
Courtesy of Kevin Cummins
The picture must tell more about the subject than the photographer.
Yeah there’s too many photographers who like to impose a grand style on it.
Do you have a criteria for choosing the composition?
I like to use architecture, I like to use the architecture of a city in pictures. When you photograph somebody and you are photographing them in their hometown or you’re photographing them in and around their work place, it is interesting to include that in the shot, because again that draws you into the picture.
I have a tendency I think, compositionally, because I am left handed, to always leave space on the left-hand side and draw people into the picture that way, so my subjects tend to be on the right-hand side of the shot. And also I think because I photographed a lot, I probably shot two hundred covers for the NME, and so automatically when I am looking at somebody to do a picture I think space for the logo, and I leave space and bring you into the picture. And sometimes I find I can’t get out of that, I’m locked into this way of composition and I can’t sometimes shift out of it. I think it’s because I’m left-handed…I find it quite awkward using a camera, because camera’s are for right-handed people, so the whole balance of the camera is the wrong way round for me, so it is something I had to fight against initially, to work with.
Mark E. Smith, 2005. Courtesy of Kevin Cummins
What is a typical day of work?
There isn’t one at all. Most people would say a typical day of work for me is spending the day talking to people generally, dealing with requests and the likeness.
When I was working on the board, I was spending a lot of time with the designer, backwards and forwards by email, nobody meets anybody any more so you just happen to sit on your own in a room and communicate via email or by phone or send a text message. A typical day for me is generally not meeting people, it is sitting on my own talking to people by other means. The kind of work I do, 90 per cent of it is dealing with all the periphery work, making sure the printer does what I need him to do the proper way, spending all my time doing my tax returns, and keeping receipts and all this stuff you weren’t trained to do.
In an ideal world you would just take photographs and let somebody else worry about that. We don’t have that luxury.
I sometimes do travel photographs for a travel guide, and that’s great because it means I can just go off for three weeks, I don’t deal with press offices and PRs or anything, it’s almost like a form of escapism, it is almost like a holiday, just photographing.
What about Manchester?
I went to Manchester city football, when the team were moving from their old ground, about five or six years ago, I went and saw them and asked if I could document it. I thought it was important for someone like me to document it. I asked the club if I could take pictures of the final season. I felt it was really important to do it, and they had the foresight to do it. They’d have moved to a new stadium, and it was a shame they wouldn’t have any pictures of the old one. So I offered to do it, and I spent a year with them and they were great to work with, really accommodating. Interestingly, obviously it’s a very closed world football, it’s not my discipline at all doing that kind of thing, but I thought it would be a challenge for me as well, and also to work exclusively with colour was important because what I wanted was to get this feeling you get as a small child going to your first football game and you see this huge expanse of green, it’s really heavily saturated with colour, and the sky’s blue and the grass is green, and the team are the same colour as the sky… and so I spent about two months experimenting towards the end of the previous season, taking pictures with every different film stock I could get, to see which film stock would give me that feeling. So interestingly I wanted it to be shot on film but I also wanted it to be shot on negative rather than color transparency, because I wanted that saturated colour, so eventually I found a Fuji film, Fuji press film that gave that red that would bleed and the green was bright, a unnatural green; it was great film, so I just bought stacks of that, and shot it on that over part of the season. After the initial period where the players were probably slightly suspicious of me being there, they got used to it and would ask me what I was doing and I’d take my own books every now and again and show them how we were progressing with it, so I included everybody. It was really important that they felt part of it, and half way through the season they were so used to me standing there…you know I wasn’t shooting action shots, I was shooting the ground and people who would go on to watch it, the players when they were training… I had to get everybody on my side really. And each week in the match magazine, we’d put a picture from the previous week, and then I’d talk about it, so then all the fans were aware of what I was doing, and quite a lot of City fans know me anyway, because of my music work, so they know who I am; and about halfway through the season people would come up to me and say, ‘there’s a really interesting looking bloke who sits over there, you should go and see him‘, so everybody was getting involved; it was a real community project in the end, it was great. I couldn’t do any music stuff at all that season, because I was so sated on this project. The only other work I did was I shot two or three footballers for interview features for a football magazine that I’d never worked for before. I couldn’t think of anything else. It was a real obsession for a year.
And the pictures of the fans, with the tattoos?
People would email me, and say ‘my sister’s got a really good tattoo‘, or ‘my friend’s got this‘. So I didn’t have to look that far, people were telling me what they thought would be good, it was a nice project. It took me ages then once I’d done it to get it out of my system really, because that had been my world for a year. It’s very different to rock n’ roll, even though you’re working with another level of celebrity. They get up at ten o’clock in the morning and musicians don’t, so it was quite a difficult one really.
Hulme, 1981. Courtesy of Kevin Cummins
And the picture of Hulme Crescents…when I take pictures in Manchester I’m photographing in urban landscapes almost. I quite often shoot street scenes or bits of architecture or bits of new build, or bits of crumbling, just because I thought it was an interesting adjunct to what I was doing, and I felt it was important in a way. There’s a picture I shot on the bridge in Hulme of the road below, and people have said to me that’s their favorite Joy Division photograph, because the band aren’t in it but it’s a picture of the space they occupied, and I think that’s quite interesting.
What are your projects?
Various things actually. But I am always loath to talk about what I’ve got coming up in the future because people might jump in and try and do it instead…I have got a Joy Division book coming up which will be available worldwide, in fact they’re doing a French version. I did a very small edition two years ago, an edition of 200, just like a private press collector’s special. The idea is doing a wider more mainstream version, and I think they want me to put almost every shot in that, so it’s a complete edit of every picture I ever took. And they’ve got Sue Webster, she’s written an essay for it, just a personal piece about what Joy Division meant to her when she was growing up.
And I met Jay McInerney at a literary event in November, and he told me Joy Division is his favorite band so I said ‘why don’t you write the introduction?‘, so he’s writing that, and Bernard Sumner is writing the epilogue. Getting Bernard to do that almost validates it in a way for people who would buy it, it gives it his stamp of authorization on it. And I’m doing a show in Ventimiglia in northern Italy, that’ll be a major picture expo in May and June and that’s quite a nice thing to do. It’s second only to Arles in Europe, for photography. Again they saw the Manchester stuff and the theme this year is photography and the city, and obviously because Manchester is defined by its music they wanted that. That’ll be really nice.
And there are two other things I’m working on at the moment but I don’t really want to say too much about them.
How important is art in your life?
It is really important. I think culture is generally, because that’s the world I’ve worked in. I always complain about photographers but I think a lot of photographers do not look beyond what they are doing. You can look at art and the way other people work and you can look at Noble and Webster and you can look at Jeremy’s work (i.e. Jeremy Deller) and you can look at different ways people work within the art world, using that as a framework without being restricted. I think that’s really important. Photography imposes so many restrictions and I think quite a lot of the time you’re being commissioned by people with no art background whatsoever. Quite often at the NME or the music papers you are commissioned by writers and their idea of a photograph is a very literal interpretation of the read. Maybe occasionally you should do that but you should bring something of yourself, something that they themselves would never have thought of, because that’s our job, that’s where the creative process comes from. I think writers quite naturally do think in quite a literal way. Going back to your question about art, it’s really important, feeling and creativity is important, it takes people out of the mundane.
Liam Gallagher, 1994. Courtesy of Kevin Cummins
Could you review your work in a critical way?
I am quite critical when I choose stuff and quite often, when I revisit, I may think I could have take a better shot if I’d done various things. For example I did a shot of Michael Hutchence, and when I did the shot for the NME cover, he’d just had a hit in England with long wavy hair, and he had it cut just before my shot, so nobody would know him. I thought, and I asked him to write INXS in lipstick on his chest and it looked really great, he had this jacket. And about two months later I thought if I’d just got someone to do a kiss above the I of INXS it would have made the shot, and obviously I could just photoshop that on it but I think that’s dishonest. Every time I look at that shot I think I should have done it. Similarly, with the Joy Division pictures I think, I took those when I was still learning how to take pictures of musicians. So all I knew was I did not want to take a confrontational clichéd rock style picture, I wanted to do something very different from that. So I was restricted slightly by the equipment I was using, and I would maybe have taken those shots in a slightly different way now. It doesn’t matter. It’s a learning thing, you learn as you work and sometimes you can get very bogged down by being over-analytical of your own work. I think you should just take what you think is a natural shot because once you start over-analyzing your work you’re imposing too many restrictions on yourself, so I don’t know, I don’t know how much it matters, it’s up to other people to interpret it, and say what they think, because everybody gets something different from it, they’re not having my experience, and likewise I’m not looking at those photos afresh for the first time.
What is your dream?
I don’t know really. I think I’m going to sound really boring and say I don’t really have one. I think I’ve been, I continue to have, a fairly interesting life-style, somebody might phone me tomorrow and offer me a project to work on that I’d find really interesting, I don’t know. I don’t sit there thinking ‘Oh I wish I could do x‘. I’m able to do that to a degree. About five years ago I was asked to do a collaboration with Jeremy Deller, then the gallery funding was withdrawn or something happened to stop that happening. I like collaborating with other artists, I think it’s interesting, I like to see their interpretation of my work. Stella Vine did a painting from one of my pictures, Peter Blake did an Ian Curtis one, and George Shaw. So I have worked with other people, and I just say ‘well, you do what you want‘. I’m able to phone people to realise dreams sometimes, so that’s quite a fortunate position. In six months time something I’ve never dreamt would be offered to me or existed might be, so I’m too pragmatic to sit there dreaming.
Madonna, 1984. Courtesy of Kevin Cummins
What do you see for yourself in ten years?
I don’t know. Sadly I’ll probably still be photographing Johnny Marr or Morrissey or Bernard Sumner or I don’t know, who knows. I’m happy doing what I do, so I don’t see the need to want to change it, I don’t feel dissatisfied with what I’m doing.
What epitaph on your grave?
I don’t care. I’ll never see it.
Bez, 1990. Courtesy of Kevin Cummins
Kevin Cummins was born in 1953.
He lives in London.
The Smiths and Beyond, 2002
We’re Not Really Here: Manchester City’s Final Season at Maine Road, 2003
Manchester: Looking For the Light Through the Pouring Rain, 2009
The author would like to thank Erin Lawlor for her precious help
Joy Division, Hulme, Manchester, 6 January 1979. Courtesy of Kevin Cummins