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Bleak Northern landscapes: An interview with Kevin Cummins

By Lee Rourke.

Kevin Cummins auto-portrait

Kevin Cummins was born within crying distance of Maine Road in Withington Hospital on 14 July 1953. Since then he has followed City over land and sea (and Stretford) for over 45 years. The rest of his time is spent earning a living as one of the world’s most venerated music and portrait photographers.

After studying photography for four years in Salford, Kevin embarked on a career that was to encompass a wide range of photographic work. The burgeoning punk scene in Manchester dominated his early work and he quickly became one of the premier documentary photographers of the era. He then started working with Manchester’s prestigious Royal Exchange Theatre and was soon in demand by major theatre companies across the UK, most notably: The Royal Opera House, The Royal Northern Ballet, The Liverpool Playhouse and The Oxford Playhouse.

Kevin was instrumental in establishing City Life, Manchester’s ‘what’s on’ guide and was a founding contributor to The Face, the influential style magazine where he won an award for Magazine Cover of the Year. In 1986 Kevin 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. These photographs formed a major part of the Wigan Pier heritage tour for 15 years.

Since moving to London in 1987, Kevin has contributed to many major UK publications, including: The Times, The Observer, The Guardian, Esquire, Maxim, Elle, Vogue, Mojo, FourFourTwo, Sleaze Nation and The Big Issue.

He spent 10 years as the chief photographer for New Musical Express – the world’s biggest selling rock weekly – where his award-winning pictures were a major contributing factor in the rise of the Madchester and Cool Britannia scenes. His work can be seen gracing many record sleeves and book jackets and he regularly contributes to publications worldwide. He also shoots regularly for The National Theatre in London. In 1987, Kevin was commissioned by Salford City Art Gallery to photograph 40 famous Salfordians to celebrate the LS Lowry centenary. His personal choice included: Sir Alistair Cooke, Albert Finney, Celia Birtwell, Kenneth Wolstenholme, John Virgo, John Cooper Clarke, Happy Mondays and Graham Nash.

His most recent book Manchester: Looking for the Light through the Pouring Rain [Faber] is out now.


3:AM: Can you explain what growing up in Manchester in the late ’70s was like? As Paul Morley said: “. . . an attitude that is local, contemporary and individual began during 1977.” What was happening and where did this attitude spring from?

Kevin Cummins: An age of innocence and a time when Manchester seemed like somewhere to escape from. It seemed like a stepping stone to a better life. It was only when Punk happened and we realised we were in a privileged position, that it became somewhere people aspired to. Mancunians have always thought Manchester was the most important city on earth. Prior to the conception of my book, I’d decided that if I ever published a book about Manchester, I’d have this quote from George Melly on my title page.

“The only band which got going at all was ‘The Saints’ from Manchester. Their success was, I suspect, due to the fact that the Royal Family are based in London. Like all Mancunians they were in a state of constant irritation that so much went on in the capital, whereas anyone could see that Manchester was in every way superior.” [George Melly, Owning Up]

That was in the ’50s. The attitude is similar today.

3:AM: We are led to believe that a certain concert at the Free Trade Hall in 1976 was the ‘big bang’ for everything that followed, but was this really the case? Do you think it would have all happened anyway; or did it have to take a bunch of cocky Londoners to give things a much need kick in the right direction?

KC: Hmmm . . . The Pistols gig has been much mythologised and it could have been an epiphany for everyone there. I doubt it though. It’d be interesting to trace some of the people who went to the gig and whose lives have carried on as normal for the past 33 years. My theory is that the true evolution of Manchester music can be traced back to the Iggy Pop gig at the Apollo with Bowie playing keyboards [Mar ’77]. Very little happened prior to that. Suddenly everyone with or without a story to tell was ready to turn that story into a three chord song.

3:AM: Iggy Pop so much to answer for, eh? I think you’re right, and Tony Wilson thought this too. I’m thinking of that great footage from Granada TV. I think the reason your book is such a treasure chest of information is that it documents absolutely everything. You make a point of including alternative scenes; the bands who aren’t as popular as some of the more obvious names. Which of the lesser known bands interested you the most, both as photographic subjects and bands you listened to?

KC: The Jazz Defektors were great subjects. The photo I’ve included in the book is a lovely Jazz dance image. It will never date because it can’t be defined by a prescribed period. I also liked Simon Topping‘s projects. His work with Mike Pickering was an interesting fusion of styles.

Joy Division

3:AM: T-Coy’s ‘Carino’ will always remind me of the Hacienda. Okay, you’re probably sick of Joy Division geeks like me asking you this next question, but can you talk us through that day on the bridge in Hulme? You have mentioned that they naturally became part of the landscape, part of the composition, but for me it is the incredible distance you create between you and them, was this intentional, or was it really ‘nerves’?

KC: I was commissioned to shoot Joy Division, The Passage and Spherical Objects for an NME piece about emerging Manchester bands. Paul Morley, who was writing the feature, asked me to concentrate mainly on Spherical Objects as he was convinced they were going to be the most important of the three. Consequently I shot four rolls of film with Spherical Objects, one on The Passage and I felt I could just about afford two rolls for the Joy Division shoot. This was to take place on Saturday 6 January 1979. It was a Saturday at their request, because they didn’t want to take time off work to do it.

I’d originally arranged to shoot it in the morning, because I wanted to go to Man City’s FA Cup 3rd round tie in the afternoon, but due to the heavy snow, we didn’t know our opponents. Then their replay was postponed – which subsequently meant City had no game that day anyhow. The day prior to the shoot, I called my editor and told him Manchester was still covered in a blanket of snow. I thought he might want to postpone the session if the feature was running a few weeks later – as it wouldn’t look current and newsworthy. He asked me to take a few in the snow but to concentrate on getting some interior shots too.

We met the band in the Mitre Hotel near Manchester Cathedral. They had a few ideas they wanted to try, one of which was a photo by a curved building on the way to Victoria Station. We also took some in and around the Cathedral yard. I didn’t feel any of it was that satisfactory but these were the shots the band wanted. I suggested going out to Hulme. I thought I could get a shot of them over Princess Parkway – echoing an earlier shot I’d taken of Buzzcocks on a Motorway Bridge. The road out of Manchester was the idea behind the picture. I have no memory of getting to Hulme. I think we must have walked there though.

They thought it’d be funny if I photographed them queuing up for a bus. We took some pictures by a bus stop. The band were laughing and joking, trying to make Ian laugh. Ian was desperately trying to look the cool lead singer. I only took one shot of them messing around – I couldn’t afford to waste film and I was still concerned that I didn’t have a lead shot. I then took them up to the footbridge. They were still messing around and I took a few of them on the ramp on the way up there – the light was terrible by now – it was mid afternoon and it was flat and grey. I was genuinely worried that my career as a ‘rock photographer’ was going to end with this session. I asked them to walk to the centre of the bridge. I thought I might get some slow shutter frames of them walking towards me in a slight blur. I also intended shooting them from the road, my camera looking up at them; the band looking away from Manchester.

As they stood around waiting for me, I realised that this was the shot I wanted. I shot it with a 20 mm lens to get the wide perspective and to make them appear further away. I asked Ian to look towards the camera. I wasn’t really bothered where the others were looking as it wasn’t a formal portrait. It was a shot of Manchester with the band an adjunct to it. I only shot three frames but I was revitalised by the knowledge that I had one good shot in the can. I then took a few of Ian as we left the bridge – the close ups of him in his overcoat – and that part of the session was complete.

We then walked back into town and went to Art and Furniture on Chapel Walks off Cross St, to ask the owner Jonathan Silver if we could take a few photos in his shop. I shot another roll there then we went to The Brunswick near Piccadilly Station where Paul interviewed them – with me butting in occasionally. The interview went well. Paul was excited by the conversation and to find how much we all had in common. I talked to Ian about Man City, Iggy, The Doors. The other three would join in the music talk with enthusiasm – they had no interest or knowledge of football though. When they finally left us after a couple of hours in the pub, Paul and I decided that he should talk to the editor on Monday to try to convince him that Joy Division was the most impressive of the three bands in our feature. They were honest. They cared so deeply about what they were doing and what they wanted to achieve. We’d always treated them as outsiders prior to this. They weren’t part of our cliquey Manchester ‘inner circle’.

But that day, Saturday 6 January 1979 everything changed. These bleak northern landscapes have since become the images that define the band. But they so nearly didn’t happen.


3:AM: ‘Bleakness’ is something you capture so well in your photographs (especially the earlier ones). Your shot of Morrissey, for example, the one that adorns the cover of the book, where was that taken? It reminds me of a Caspar David Friedrich painting, or Nietzsche’s famous maxim: ‘When you look into the abyss the abyss also looks into you’ . . . Are you thinking about the symbolic order of things when taking a photograph?

KC: I think the bleakness in many of my photographs comes from the landscape. There’s also a lot of solitude. I love working with incurable romantics. Morrissey understands what I want from a photograph. Compositionally I want to draw the viewer into the shot via the other information there. It’s not just a picture of Morrissey because there are other elements to it. However, those elements give you a better understanding of Moz. I don’t really want to give the exact location of the Morrissey photo. It’d spoil the mystery, but it’s in Manchester by the Irwell.

I’m interested in how critics read a photograph. In the ’80s, when I used to leave a ragged rebate around the full frame image, Robert Hewison wrote an essay comparing them to Rothko’s borders – he’d initially suggested that I was echoing the Victorian vignette – which I clearly wasn’t. It was meant to be a signature of sorts. The photo was instantly identifiable as mine.

My early photos of the Manic Street Preachers lying on gold sari cloth were inspired by Egon Schiele‘s paintings of young women. The young Manics were perfect subjects for that combination of trash aesthetic and ambiguous eroticism. All this helps to aid the public’s perception of the artistes with whom I work. It can also act as another layer of mystery. After all it’s my perception of their character that I’m imposing on my sitter.

Maybe I’m guilty of looking for what isn’t there sometimes. Although I prefer to think I’m already drawing on what I can see.

Shaun Ryder and Tony Wilson

3:AM: I think I have an idea where it was taken, but I’ll keep it to myself. To return to your book, then. Essays by Paul Morley, Stuart Maconie and John Harris accompany the collection. Was this important to you? To especially have them collaborating with you? I mean, do you all have a sense that you were part of something together?

KC: I wanted writers who I’d worked with at specific periods to write the essays. It was important because I always felt that the features we worked on together for the NME were collaborative efforts. Hence for the book I wanted the words and photos to be as seamless as possible – to all be part of one narrative thread – as much as it’s possible to do that when more than one person is involved. I feel that the photographs move the reader onto the next essay and vice versa. I think it works. It’s a book to hold and read. It’s not a coffee table vanity exercise.

3:AM: That’s exactly what I was going to say; the book, whilst also beautifully produced, transcends the pointlessness of a vanity project and is something a reader can, you know, read, learn from, return to again, and again. Is this something you wanted to create? A visual and written work of reference?

KC: Definitely. It’s the ultimate Manchester book. Put in on the shelf next to my Manchester City book [We’re Not Really Here] and you have the complete Manchester popular culture set. Well, as seen through my eyes anyhow. I didn’t want the book to just be a wankfest of photographs (I must think of a more technical expression one day). I wanted it to be more than that. I’m also aware that one has to work hard to keep the reader interested. Hence the text sections are punctuated with pieces of ephemera from my past – and from Manchester’s past. There’s even a small photograph of T.J. Davidson (with a Lotus Elite). If it wasn’t for him and his rehearsal rooms, many of my Joy Division photos wouldn’t exist…

3:AM: Manchester and its football culture is clearly a major part of your life (and a major influence too, the book’s cover is a very special shade of blue, for instance). Obviously you’re from the blue half of Manchester; what was your first game and have you ever cancelled a photo shoot because City were playing?

KC: My first game was on 19 August 1961. A 3-1 victory over Leicester at Maine Road. It was the first game of the season and the victory gave me a false sense of optimism which has lasted for 48 years so far. My major memory of the day was the walk through a dark tunnel into the ground and seeing this huge verdant football pitch. It was an unusually sunny day for August in Manchester – all the colours seemed highly saturated. This was the feeling I wanted to capture with the Man City book too. I spent a few weeks experimenting with different film stock until I found one that gave me the right colour saturation I needed.

I’ve missed a few games because of work – obviously – but whenever possible I’d arrange to fly back to England from a shoot in the USA in order to see City. I was once working in Miami for a few days, then going onto LA. I decided I had to come back to see an important game v Aston Villa in Birmingham on a Sunday. I flew from Miami, arrived Sunday morning and was driven up to Birmingham – we won 2-1 – I got a lift back and went straight to L.A. Ridiculous I know. I wouldn’t do it now of course. Unless…

3:AM: I can identify with that same ‘saturation’ of colour when I went to Old Trafford for the first time (Saturday 3 October, 1981; we beat Wolves 5–0 after Bryan Robson signed his one million pounds contact on the pitch!), nothing has been able to replace the sight of the grass as I walked up the steps to the Stetford End for the first time. Okay, if you could keep only one memory which would it be: Dennis Tueart’s wonderful over head kick in 1976 or the 5-1 drubbing of United in 1989?

KC: There’s no question about it. What overhead kick?

New Order

3:AM: I wouldn’t expect any other answer. Your current manager scored the best goal that day as well! But joking aside, red or blue, your work possesses that vital element: attention to detail. You mention that you searched film stock for the right ‘colour saturation’ for your Manchester City book, is the constant search for the perfect photograph something that drives you? Have you ever come close to capturing the perfect image, and if so which of your photographs comes closest?

KC: I think that some of Irving Penn‘s photos are close to perfection. There are so many varying conditions when taking a photo – especially a portrait. I’ve taken photographs that have become iconic and some that define the band or artiste but it’s difficult to say what makes it so and why that happens. Once I’d shot the Roses covered in paint it was difficult for another photographer to take a defining picture of them.

3:AM: Are there any bands/individuals you’d have liked to have photographed?

KC: I used to say Margaret Thatcher’s assassin as the answer to this question – but now I’m more forgiving. I’d love to have photographed Bob Dylan at the Free Trade Hall – but I didn’t even know of his existence in 1966. I’d like to photograph Noel Gallagher’s new band and maybe I wish I’d photographed Kurt Cobain.

3:AM: Who are you main influences?

KC: Bill Brandt, Diane Arbus, Irving Penn, Walker Evans.

3:AM: What are you working on right now?

KC: Er, I seem to be locked into one huge nostalgia trip talking about Manchester. In my spare time I’m working on a photo essay for Loops – the Faber/Domino journal.

3:AM: Thanks, Kevin. One more thing: are City going to win anything this year?

KC: I think we’ll finish second to Chelsea. And so long as we avoid Chelsea in the two domestic cup competitions I don’t see why we can’t win them both.


Lee Rourke is the author of Everyday [Social Disease Books] and the forthcoming novel The Canal [Melville House].

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, September 30th, 2009.