Kevin Cummins is the man who took iconic photographs of Manchester’s punk and dance explosion – we talk to him about the city, Ian Curtis and how times have changed
When we see images of our favourite bands, what story do those pictures tell us? Before the digital age, people knew who musicians were because photographers made them into stars. Now, it’s increasingly difficult to tell the difference between momentary sensations and musicians with more longevity. The role of the often-invisible music photographer is to act as a filter and to create the myths and stories surrounding our favourite artists.
One of post-punk’s pioneering bands is Joy Division, a tragically short-lived star in Manchester’s rock and roll scene. The photographer responsible for creating the iconic images we associate with the group is Kevin Cummins. Originally from Salford in Manchester, Cummins has spent his decade-spanning career photographing musical greats from David Bowie through to The Smiths and Mick Jagger. Spending ten years as the chief photographer for the NME, it goes without saying that his pictures have often become the images that define bands.
Cummins is perhaps best known for his epoch-defining work documenting the extraordinary explosion of Mancunian musical talent, from the late 70s right through to the early 90s. His association with Manchester greats like Joy Division and New Order and his capturing of the Madchester music scene has seen Cummins’ work become the authoritative history on the development of the city’s rock and roll. At the end of this month, a selection of Cummins’ seminal New Order and Joy Division photographs will be showcased at the Sydney Opera House. As part of its annual Vivid LIVE event, running between 27 May and 13 June, the Opera House will be the stage for a host of musical greats, including New Order, and Cummins will also take part in two talks to discuss his photography and the Manchester of yesteryear’s musical scene. We catch up with him before he leaves for Australia.
Why do you think that during the late 70s and 80s there was such a massive outpouring of talent in Manchester?
Kevin Cummins: Punk started everything off. Prior to that, we’d had a Manchester that was always interested into lots of different music: T-Rex, Roxy Music, all that stuff and punk came out of that. We were lucky in that two of the nightclubs that used to play disco turned one of the rooms over into the Bowie and Roxy room. So kids who had felt like there wasn't anywhere for them were able to go there quite safely... although you'd still get the disco kids trying to beat you up on the way out!
I think Manchester always had that and when punk started it actually came out of that Bowie and Roxy period, whereas in London it came more out of punk-rock. We were fortunate in Manchester in that we had Hulme where people could squat and live cheaply. The council had virtually abandoned these huge crescents, which allowed people to do whatever they wanted. So people would knock three or four of them through and turn them into recording studios, rehearsal spaces, nightclubs. All sorts of stuff went on in there and as long as someone kept an eye on it no one would start any bother, so it allowed people to live cheaply.
How important was having Hulme as an epicentre?
Kevin Cummins: I think that it helped to foster creativity. If people aren’t having to pay a lot to live they can afford to spend all day smoking weed and working, playing guitar, doing whatever they want. So that all helped I think, a lot of it came out of that. I think there is this golden age, almost. Partly because bands are inspired by what surrounds them and if there’s a city where people are creative and making a lot of music and you’ve got writers, you’ve got photographers, you've got this support system there, it encourages the next generation to do something like that too. You can't live in major cities cheaply anymore.
When you were actually taking the pictures of those bands and documenting that whole musical scene, did you realise what you were a part of and how important it would be?
Kevin Cummins: Oh yeah. But I think whenever you’re in the middle of a scene you always think it’s possibly more important than it is. I could walk across this bar now and ask anyone over there ‘how much has Joy Division influenced your life?’ and he'll say ‘I've never heard of them.’ Whereas to me, they’re the most important band of that period and they continue to be hugely important to most musicians. I think there are several bands that people have all been influenced by, you know? People have been influenced by Bowie and Miles Davis and Joy Division. I think if you’re into music and you want to be a musician you really do have to understand the rock lineage and rock history. That's what I’ve done with my life anyway, some might say I've slightly wasted it.
When Ian Curtis died, did you feel a disconnect from the band?
Kevin Cummins: No, not at all. I was totally shocked at the time. I was going to the States with the band on the Monday and I was out on the Saturday night with Rob Gretton, the band’s manager, at a wedding. Then we went back to Rob’s and sat up all night talking about going to the States and how exciting it was going to be and so on. I left at about six in the morning and Rob rang me at lunchtime and said ‘that silly cunt's killed himself’ and I knew exactly what he meant. We had no idea. He’d tried to commit suicide before in a kind of half-hearted way, but I don’t think anyone really expected him to do it. If anyone had really expected him to do it they would’ve sat with him all the time. But the 70s were a very different place to the period we’re living in now where people overshare. Back then no-one really talked to each other about anything.
When you were asked to put the pictures together for the Vivid Live event, how did it feel to revisit them?
Kevin Cummins: I revisit them a lot, because I’ve published two Joy Division books, done the New Order book, the Madchester anthology... I've had exhibitions all over the world with the Manchester stuff; Joy Division, New Order. So it’s not something new for me. It’s sometimes difficult to say something new about something that was a very short period of time. I think it’s a testimony to how much the group has touched people over the years. And the photographs – they’re the pictures that have become associated with them. For me, it’s weird to constantly talk about the session I did when I left art school. It’s not like I then stopped working and went off and did something else. But the session has such resonance, it’s a massive compliment that people in Australia want to see it and people in Buenos Aires want to see it and people in the States. It’s worldwide, you know? It’s not just a small part of Manchester that we didn't tell anyone about – it's something that's touched people all over the world and that's astonishing to me.