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His photographs helped shape rock mythology. Now Kevin Cummins’ iconic shots are gracing Vivid. By Anwen Crawford.

Manchester photographer Kevin Cummins, from Joy Division to Happy Mondays

British photographer Kevin Cummins.
Credit: KEVIN CUMMINS

Early in 1979, during the depths of an English winter, a young Manchester music photographer took a picture that has lived on in periodicals, books, exhibitions and on the bedroom walls of teenagers. The photographer was Kevin Cummins, and his subject was the Manchester post-punk band Joy Division. The group was then little known, and yet to release an album. Their debut, Unknown Pleasures, was still six months away.

In Cummins’ black-and-white photograph, the members of Joy Division are stood on the crest of a pedestrian bridge, and the bridge is blanketed in a fresh layer of snow. No footprints blemish the snowfall, and one’s eye is drawn along the bridge railings, past the housing blocks in mid-distance, to the vanishing point of the composition, where four young men seem to arrive in the picture and recede from it at the same time. Without even knowing what Joy Division sound like – and few people did know in 1979 – the photograph shows you what to listen for: a music of strict lines and architectural heft; cold, but with an intimation of tenderness. The photograph would accompany Joy Division’s first cover article in British music weekly NME. Cummins’ cover shot – of the band’s singer and lyricist, Ian Curtis, smoking a cigarette – has also endured. It has the same visual lucidity: a still, simple poise; Curtis looking directly down the camera lens.

Speaking with me from his home in London, Cummins seems only mildly disconcerted that a photo session he shot as a 25-year-old is still a subject of discussion more than 30 years later. He is a believer in rock’s visual power, and in the role that photography has in creating it. “With Joy Division,” he says, “I wanted them to look like serious young men. I didn’t want them laughing.” That meant careful shooting – on a budget of two rolls of film per session – around the band’s frequent pranks. “When you’re a photographer,” Cummins says, “you’ve got to realise that you’re not just shooting for that moment, you’re shooting for posterity.” 

Cummins has photographed for publications including The Times and The Guardian, and was the NME’s chief photographer for 10 years. He has also photographed for several British theatre companies, and at his beloved Manchester City Football Club. His photographs of Manchester bands, from the black-and-white world of post-punk to the multicoloured, psychedelic energy of Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses, have travelled around the world. Cummins’ portraits of Joy Division and their successors, New Order, are currently on display at the Sydney Opera House, where New Order will also play, as part of Vivid. 

It was Cummins’ good fortune to find himself graduating art school in Salford just as punk was beginning to stir across Britain. Born in Manchester in 1953, he started photographing as a child: both his father and grandfather were keen amateur photographers, and his parents bought him a camera when he was five years old. But he hadn’t considered seriously pursuing photography until a teenage acquaintance asked him why he was planning on going to university and not to art school. “Because I came from a very working-class background, it had never occurred to me that the arts were for the working classes,” he says. He switched courses at the last minute, and ended up studying photography for four years.

One of the first live music photographs Cummins shot was of David Bowie, in 1973, when Bowie was nearing the end of his Ziggy Stardust phase. The photograph of Bowie – his arms outstretched, a thousand-yard stare upon his face – is included in Cummins’ 2009 monograph, Manchester: Looking for the Light through the Pouring Rain. When taking Bowie’s portrait many years later, says Cummins, “I told him that he was responsible for my career. He said he didn’t even want to be responsible for his own.” Ziggy Stardust, the alien messiah come to preach to a fallen world, anticipated the apocalyptic fervour of punk, which arrived in Manchester on June 4, 1976, when the Sex Pistols played a show at the Lesser Free Trade Hall.

“What happened on that stage would lead to lives being changed,” the Manchester journalist Paul Morley wrote in Cummins’ book. There were maybe 50 people at the Sex Pistols’ show, but among them were those who would be galvanised to create an independent Manchester music scene of exceptional depth and longevity. Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley, who formed Manchester punk band Buzzcocks, had organised the show. The youthful Steven Morrissey, not yet the awkward indie hero of The Smiths, was in the audience. Tony Wilson, local television reporter and soon-to-be founder of Factory Records, was probably there, along with most of the members of the label’s first significant act, Joy Division, before they were Joy Division. Many others have since claimed that they were there, too. It was, says Cummins, who also attended, “the most important photograph I didn’t take”. 

“If I had a picture of everybody who was in that room, we wouldn’t be sitting here talking about the mythology of Manchester now.” Without a record of evidence, the myth has only grown, and this, says Cummins, is a useful thing. Less can be more. He worries about younger artists today who send out a constant stream of titbits to their fans via social media. “They’re giving us too information,” he says. “They don’t seem to understand that mythology is about giving very little information.”

Back then, by contrast, the only way to find out about new, underground artists was through the pages of magazines such as NME, or by listening to John Peel’s program on BBC Radio 1. It was, subsequently, always Cummins’ intention to show readers “what the band would sound like, in a picture. I always felt that it was our job, not to patronise… but to point people in the right direction sometimes.” He photographed Buzzcocks in colour, among the shelves of a local public library, the labels Fiction and Romance floating above their heads, in cheeky reference to the group’s buzzing, sardonic takes on everyday life. The Fall – knotty, gnomic favourites of John Peel – were pictured in the car park of Manchester Central Station, vocalist and songwriter Mark E. Smith dressed in an argyle knit jumper, like a very old young man. It was the “ordinariness” of these fledgling musicians that appealed, says Cummins, but which also helped to build their mythology: the lesson of punk was that anyone could remake themselves, and stake a claim on history.

The subject of these photographs is as much Manchester itself as any of the artists: rain-soaked, grimy, with its bombed-out wastelands dating back to World War II, and its Brutalist housing blocks which, in the 1960s, had replaced entire streets of Victorian terraced housing. Among the photographs now on show in Sydney are Cummins’ shots of the squat and desolate-looking Russell Club, where Factory Records held regular shows, and the grid-like view from the Epping Walk Bridge, where he photographed Joy Division. “It was easy to think in black and white in Manchester,” he says, “because it was very black and white.”

That would change, as the 1970s wore on into the 1980s. In the wake of Ian Curtis’s suicide in 1980, the remaining members of Joy Division formed New Order, becoming a quartet with the addition of keyboardist Gillian Gilbert. The band travelled to America, visiting nightclubs, bringing their new-found electronic influences to bear upon their era-defining 1983 single, “Blue Monday”. Cummins photographed them in America shortly after that release, four sunlit individual portraits against the chemical blue backdrop of a swimming pool. “I thought it would be really nice to do some pictures that echoed David Hockney,” says Cummins, and his photographs convey a bright and slightly brittle Los Angeles optimism. “We weren’t going to LA, so I used the Holiday Inn pool in Washington, DC.”

“New Order were so lazy and so disinterested in having their photograph taken,” he recalls. “If you could ever suggest anything to them that meant all they had to do was lie down with their eyes closed and forget I was there, they were really into it.” Was that the difference between photographing Joy Division and photographing New Order? “No,” he replies. “That’s the difference between photographing New Order and photographing Morrissey. Morrissey wants to make you work until it’s so dark you can’t see in front of yourself.”

Among Cummins’ photographs from this period are shots taken on the dance floor of the Hacienda, a Manchester nightclub purpose-built by Factory Records, using New Order’s money. Factory was run more as a social experiment than as a financially viable record label; it was Tony Wilson’s gift, says Cummins, to draw in very disparate people and say, “I think you’ll get on together.” The Hacienda brought the latest and best in dance music culture to Manchester, and the result, in the late 1980s, would be a local flowering of rave-friendly DJs and bands: the “Madchester” of Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses.

Naturally, Cummins would be on hand to create the definitive portrait session for The Stone Roses, which he shot one cold November day in a Manchester artists’ studio. The idea, says Cummins, was to combine his photographic skills with the painting of the band’s guitarist, John Squire, whose Jackson Pollock-like artworks often adorned the Roses’ record sleeves. Having first turned the studio “into a polythene cube”, Cummins asked Squire to paint directly onto his bandmates, “and I did have this romantic idea that he was going to actually get a brush and paint them”. Instead, Squire opened a can of paint “and threw it across the room, all over them”, before tipping the can over his own head and then stepping into shot. The resulting photographs, a riot of primary colours, show a band at the height of their youthful commitment and confidence, with Ian Brown, the group’s vocalist, looking ready to climb straight out of the frame.

The key to his portraiture, says Cummins, is to make his subjects understand that the camera “is a barrier between us, and they have to relate to me. They have to look at me.” He wants his subjects “to be themselves, but I also want them to be the person I see”: a character larger than life, an icon in the making. “I want the picture to be the kind of shot that builds the mythology of the band,” he says, and he is pleased to know that his photographs have been the stuff of countless informal exhibitions on bedroom walls, little treasures cut and kept from newspapers and magazines. “I love that, because that’s what I was doing it for.”

Proud as he is of his role in helping to create rock mythology, Cummins is also quick to dispel the aura surrounding some of his photographs, particularly those of Joy Division, whose brief career – two starkly beautiful albums – has been forever shadowed by Ian Curtis’s premature death. “We were doing those pictures and then going back to the pub,” he says. “And the thing that people don’t understand about England in that particular period is that the pubs were closed between three and 5.30 in the afternoon.” This meant that almost all of Cummins’ NME sessions were shot in fading afternoon light; the elegiac quality that has been retrospectively assigned to the photographs was as much an accident of circumstance as a design.

“People read all sorts of things into those pictures now,” he says. “Like those pictures of Ian smoking, which were the final six frames of a session. I put one on Twitter and somebody said, ‘Oh, sad eyes.’ ” Cummins sounds incredulous. “He hasn’t got sad eyes! It was freezing cold.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 28, 2016 as "Factory settings". Subscribe here.

Anwen Crawford
is The Monthly’s music critic and the author of Live Through This.