On a bright, sunny, bustling Sunday afternoon in London, I arrived at The Wheatsheaf pub in the London suburb of Tooting Beck. I’d travelled down from Sheffield to meet and interview the world renowned British rock Photographer Kevin Cummins.
I’d seen Kevin interviewed in Macclesfield before The Peter Hook and The Light gig on the 35th anniversary of Ian Curtis’s death. Even with that interview in mind, and knowing how well he interviewed in total honesty I felt nervous, for here was a man who’s pictures I had on my bedroom wall as a teenager. Images that had shaped the face of some of my favourite rock and roll bands and frontmen. Kevin had worked with them and taken some of the most up close and personal shots of my idols Ian Curtis, John Cooper Clarke, Ian Brown, Bowie and Liam Gallagher. When Kevin arrived I was put immediately at ease by his calming, gentle aura and softly spoken, velvety voice. His striking blue eyes mesmerized me as we sat and got past the initial introductions. Dressed all in black, curiosity raced around me. I have always had such a huge admiration and respect for creative people. People who’s minds can project such powerful art and capture timeless, precious moments. In my eyes the work of these imaginative souls, like music-colour my world and brighten up many a sombre mood.
Kevin studied photography in Salford. His career started in the mid seventies in Manchester photographing up and coming punk and rock bands. He worked for the NME for twenty five years, ten of which he was chief photographer.He has photographed numerous bands and many of my favourite musicians including Joy Division, Manic Street Preachers, Mick Jagger, The Clash,TheSex Pistols, R.E.M., U2, Patti Smith, Marc Bolan, John Cooper Clarke, The Smiths, Oasis, Foo Fighters, Michael Hutchence, The Stone Roses and The Buzzcocks. Kevin’s photography played a massive part in the rise of Madchester and Cool Britannia.
Kevin’s photography has created some of the most outstanding visual shots, shots that will be forever cemented in musical history.
You’re famous for photographing some of the most famous bands to come out of Manchester, In your opinion who was the most easiest to work with?
When people start in a band they are young, quite self conscious as a lot of people are; I think you have to be able to work with them and ease them into it. I think they grow with confidence once they know they look good on pictures they trust you more and the shoots gets easier. Morrissey is the easiest to work with as he likes having his picture taken. It’s interesting as the first time I shot them together (The Smiths) he was the most natural the rest was veryself conscious. It’s harder if you don’t get on with people but doing my job for as long as I have I find it quite easy to find common ground.
Are you given a brief for say a image for a band or is that something your responsible for?
It’s something I’ve always created, sometimes if your shooting editorially you might get a brief from the editor telling you what they’d like. People tend to trust me and let me do what I want.
How did you develop your style?
I studied photography and I knew the types of things I wanted to do, I was never really interested in rock and roll photography, I was more interested in portraiture. I always felt it was my duty to take a picture to tell a story.
Who did you listen to back in the day?
Leonard Cohen and Bowie; I was obsessed by Bowie.
Was you starstruck when you went on to photograph them?
I was completely starstruck when I pictured Bowie.
With Joy Division seeing the band live from practically day one did you have a image and idea in your head how you wanted the band to come across?
The only way back then people could see musicians as such was through the NME or maybe if John Peel played them but there’s no visual to go with that so even if bands had a record they wouldn’t of had a picture on their sleeve. The first time people would see the bands would be in the music express so you wouldn’t really want to make it too obscure. I was careful with the shots – I’d never photograph Ian smiling, because that wasn’t how we wanted him to look. It was media manipulation. We wanted them to look like very serious young men, visually intimidating. And black and white suited them – Peter Hook says you think of Joy Division as a black and white band. Quite often also in those days bands were signing on as they wasn’t really earning much money for playing live so invariably you’d shoot them in the shadows so the DHSS wouldn’t spot them.
Did you know what you wanted to create with the Joy Division Hulme Bridge shoot? How did the day go?
The Joy Division photo of them on the bridge I wanted people to look at it and immediately know what that band would sound like, because it was very bleak and there was a lot of space in it so I think that worked. It was a entry point for a lot of people they would see that and want to find out more about them. It wasn’t like it is now where you want to hear a band you press a button. Back then you really had to search it out, if you lived in Lincoln or Mansfield or anywhere that wasn’t a major city it was very hard to even find a record shop that stocked stuff like that.
Joy Division were relatively unknown when I did this NME shoot. It was 1979 and I was just starting out, too, so in a way we were experimenting with each other. It’s one of the first band shoots I did – and probably my best-known photograph.
I didn’t really like a lot of rock’n’roll imagery: I thought it was confrontational. What I was trying to do here was capture their sound. I felt that the space in the photograph was like the space in their music. I told Bernard Sumner this last year and he said: “We didn’t have any sparseness in our sound, we filled all the gaps.” But then they always did have a very different idea about how they sounded. Left to their own devices, they could have been Bon Jovi. We nearly cancelled the shoot because of the weather. We ended up doing some pictures in the snow, but took more indoors.
The original idea was to shoot the band from the road looking up at the bridge, so they would face south, as if they were looking out of Manchester and almost saying: “When we’re successful, we’ll be out of here.” But when I saw them on the brow of the bridge I thought it made a great architectural shot. It almost didn’t need the band in the picture, because it would have still been a Joy Division photograph. I only had two rolls of film, as that was all I could afford, so I had to make every frame count. There were three takes of this setup: one upright and two horizontal. Every few minutes they were complaining about the cold. It was a totally different city back then. It looks like eastern Europe. I’ve noticed that when students move to Manchester they have their picture taken on the bridge. It’s an honour that people feel the photograph defines the city and the band.
Do you miss those times, compared to now?
No, not really I think digital has made things more easier but people don’t know how to control it so most creative professions are struggling are because they don’t know how to reign digital in. Record companies are worried there not making money, everyone’s worried that copyright is getting infringed constantly. It’s quite hard to control your own work as much as you could years ago. Also its kind of destroying the mystic of rock and roll a bit because rock and rolls built of mythology, I’ve said before I wouldn’t want David Bowie Instagraming his breakfast every day I’d like to think he lived on mars and had moon dust in a morning. I didn’t like to think he just went to Budgens and bought himself a bagel. They just need to reign it in and stop doing this and create a bit more mystery about it, that was our job, I felt that was our job to help to create the mythology of rock and roll and I think largely we succeeded. Then bands have tried to destroy it ever since digital came out.
Going back to Joy Division, how was Ian Curtis as a person?
Like anyone else he was just a normal lad of twenty one, twenty two who was in a band. I mean the thing with Ian was his life before he joined a band was quite normal and he got married young like a lot of working class lads did as a way out of his back ground that’s what loads of people did. It was only when the band started they weren’t successful in his lifetime but they had a modicum of success and they’d then go to northern Europe and Ian would meet people who he was more in tune with and probably realize he made some mistakes, we’ve all made mistakes in our pasts, but he was meeting people he wouldn’t necessarily meet at home and certainly wouldn’t have met if he was in a band. There he was with people talking to him about stuff he’d always liked and always felt a bit on an outsider for liking. It was difficult we were all kids and lads in those days didn’t talk about things like lads in these days do.
Most people who were into introspective music like Ian prior to Joy Division like Leonard Cohen would sit in their bedrooms on their own or with a friend and analyze the lyrics, it didn’t make you think oh he’s weird, it’s just how kids grew up then.
Everyone likes to think Ian was sat on the back of the bus reading about French philosophers and he didn’t he liked talking about football, music, enjoyed a pint and looking at girls like most lads his age did. I talked to Ian about Man City, Iggy, The Doors of whom he was a fan of. The other three would join in the music talk with enthusiasm – they had no interest or knowledge of football though.
Any troubles Ian did have he hid well. Northern men don’t want to show their vulnerable at all..
(All Images by Kevin Cummins)