Amidst a week of ‘back to work’ and ‘January blues’ tweets came a sudden and unavoidable buzz amongst the creative Mancs in my network (in particular Debbie Manley who is the ‘what’s on’ font of all Mancunian knowledge. Statuses and retweets were full of info regarding the opening night of the Kevin Cummins Exemplar exhibition to be held at Manchester Photographic, a gallery/school/studio centre on Tariff Street in Manchester.
Anyone who is into music and thinks they don’t know the photographer Kevin Cummins is wrong. Search his name on google images and you will recognise most of what comes up. His work is both the basecoat and the Hall of Fame of musical imagery for the past 30 odd years. This isn’t surprising seeing as though Cummins was associated with the NME for over 25 years (10 of which he spent as their chief photographer). Think Richie Edwards and Nicky Wire with ‘Culture Slut’ written across his chest, think Stone Roses covered in blue paint, think Bjork (I often do), think Bowie (and wish him happy birthday), Iggy Pop, Courtney Love … you get the picture (sorry I couldn’t help that one).
Amongst these visions of musical amazement, if you happen to think of Joy Division, it’s likely you’ll be thinking in terms of Cummins (apart from the strip lighting shot at Lancaster Gate Station, that was taken by Anton Corbijn who directed Control). Whether it’s one of the intense live shots – capturing Ian Curtis’ transfixed stare or erratic dance moves – or the eerie industrial landscape of the band on Hulme (Joy Division) Bridge in the snow, Cummins’ vision of the band is what became to visually define them.
There are various reasons for this. A familiar member of the Manchester gig-going network, once employed for the NME, Cummins was regularly commissioned back to Manchester to picture anyone making a sound loud enough to be heard in London. One such band was Joy Division and on 6th January 1979, Cummins met with the band to shoot them for the next edition of NME.
Cummins was just beginning his photography career as Joy Division were beginning to define themselves as a band. Through this shared interest/network/drive for self-development evolved a relationship that allowed Cummins, in the years to come, matchless access to a band on a mission, and Joy Division the opportunity to be captured and defined on their own artistic terms.
Having been in a band myself (did I mention we were called King Kayak? You may know us because we were no way near as successful as Joy Division), I can only imagine how creatively satisfying this must have been. I still have nightmares of playing at Friends of Mine festival, with a photographer who came along with us irritatingly indicating at me to smile for her camera throughout an entire song (at the end of which I bluntly growled at her and then hid behind my keyboards).
With Cummins, Joy Division did not have to suffer uncomfortable hideousness. Though as Cummins says himself, “we each had our own agenda”. Cummins, who had to pay for his own film and development, had an economical interest in the photos he took. This meant, whether shooting for the NME or just for the band at rehearsals or gigs, Cummins “rarely wasted a shot”. Due to the fact that most publications were printing in black and white he rarely wasted his money shooting in colour either. Such creative tightarsery resulted in a small, but beautifully melancholy, collection of images that covered the band’s career and visually represented the way people were to hear their music in many ways.
All these images and more, including pictures of hand-scrawled lyrics, set lists and gig tickets, are on display as part of the exhibition. Exemplar premiered (to give it a movie-style grandness) at Proud Camden last October. On at Manchester Photographic Gallery until the end of February it is spread across three floors with each image given a decent amount of space. The silver gelatin prints are each surrounded by intentional remains of the original negatives. This really gives the whole exhibition a real ‘photography’ feel to it, highlighting not only the subject, but the photographer and photography process.
The gallery’s glass façade provides a constant reminder of the industrial heritage that was so influential in shaping the band and images of them. Viewing Stephen Morris, Peter Hook, Ian Curtis and Bernard Sumner, collars raised against the snow and wind on that icy Hulme bridge, with the industrial trappings that have become so synonymous with Manchester filling the front wall of the gallery, the images and gallery co-work to add to the experience. You really couldn’t have a more suitable setting in which to grasp the beauty of these images. With their dark atmosphere, photographic noise and grit, they are a stunning wake-up call to me as a photographer working with digital, that the constant technical aim of clarity and sharpness is nothing in comparison with energy, feeling and intent.
I missed the preview night but was lucky enough to get a ticket to see Kevin Cummins ‘in conversation’ with Stephen Morris, yesterday. In the basement of the gallery with 99 other photography and Joy Division fans (and a random spider that decided to walk across my boot), we watched a film short about the exhibition and got to question the men themselves about the time they spent together.
This was humorous and insightful but mostly connective. It made you feel you were somehow a part of the creative. Whether as viewer, listener or stalker, you were a part of the ongoing legacy that has developed from a groundbreaking couple of albums (of which I indecently forced my friends to listen to repeatedly over Christmas) and a thoughtful, compassionate and era-defining set of images.
I bought the show accompanying book (Rizzoli Publications 208pp) and got the chaps to sign it “To Anne and Kev” (we decided we could share and save our beer pennies). The book is beautifully designed. In stark contrast to the mainly monochrome images, the cover and text within is a fantastic bold orange colour. The layout is sharp and allows maximum space for the photographs. The cover font matches my Joy Division t-shirt (I’m sure this is coincidental, but adds greatly to my joy).
I thoroughly recommend you catch the exhibition while it is on. Use the opportunity to enjoy Manchester Photographic Gallery, listen to a whole load of Joy Division and to spend hours online hyped up on Espresso Martinis looking at Kevin Cummins images. I have, and it’s a decent way to ease myself out of the January blues and into the many wonderful and beautiful things I’m sure 2012 will have on offer.
Today I’ve been reading: Joy Division by Kevin Cummins, foreword by Jay McIneray includes an interview with Kevin Cummins and Bernard Sumner.
Today I’ve been listening to: Permanent by Joy Division
Today I’ve been watching (or will be): Sherlock Holmes, BBC1