Former NME photographer Kevin Cummins on the joys of photography and his dislike for Duran Duran

By Francine Ponticelli

With an exhibition set to grace Manchester in the New Year and a new book on release, iconic music photographer Kevin Cummins is set to take the city by storm again.

Cummins, who is now based in London, was born in Manchester and studied photography at Salford for four years.

The art of photography, the dark room and the creation of prints have been a fascination of his since before he was five-years-old.

“My interest in photography started when my dad used to take his own pictures,” recalls Cummins.

“We had a dark room, which was a converted cupboard under the stairs. It’s not as if we had one in the west-wing, or anything like that.”

Spending time with his dad and granddad in their home-made laboratory, where they turned snaps into photographs, Cummins evokes: “I was always in the dark room looking at this magical process.”

On his fifth birthday his dad bought him his own camera and it was from this time that he started to develop his own photos.

“I never thought it would be a career, I just enjoyed it,” explained Cummins.

To maintain this pastime became a challenge, as the material that he required was pricey.

“There was a cost issue for film back then and those were your boundaries, really. It wasn’t as accessible as digital photography is today.”

As he grew up and made his way through school, Cummins believed that studying English was his calling and didn’t really consider taking photography any further than from the cupboard under the stairs.

Fortunately, a close friend influenced that decision.

Cummins went on to pave his way in the industry and even found himself as the regular photographer for Manchester’s City Life magazine.

Speaking on how it all came about, Cummins illustrated: “People were putting the cooperative together and it was a pitiful first cover, so I offered to shoot covers for them. It was a favour that lasted two years.”

Major success came in 1983 when he scooped Magazine Cover of the Year for his work with The Face, which art director, Neville Brody, helped to create.

“[The cover] was of New Order and they had shadow and mystique about them. We used harsh props and didn’t show the full face.”

Cummins admitted that this way of shooting was new at the time and it definitely attracted attention.

Speaking on the popular consensus for magazine covers now and then – the colour pop effect, the pearly whites on display and the lack of mystery – Cummins remarks: “You think you want to know everything and it’s all there for you to see.”

But he can’t take all the glory for his 1983 win as he praises Brody. “Quite an inspirational person to work with.”

Throughout his career, Cummins has had great opportunities to work with many inspiring people, plenty of which requested him especially.

With hundreds of pictures being produced over the years, there had to be one subject that stood out from the rest.

“Morrissey,” Cummins answered immediately.

“With everyone it’s a collaboration. He’s very visual and good to work with.”

Expanding further, he added: “Bono was very good to work with and professional.”

Cummins explained it’s common within the industry that bands and artists are informed about the photographer they are to work with prior to the shoot.

It is the knowledge of this that spurred him to divulge who was unfavourable to work with: “Duran Duran. Normally, I get on with people I work with, but they had no respect for anything, or anyone. They didn’t even care about each other.”

The shoot that stands out the most for him, maybe for the wrong reasons, was with David Bowie: “I found that really difficult because I was intimidated.

“Every picture I was taking was terrible because I didn’t dare ask him to move.”

Although the nerves kicked in, Cummins was given another chance to work with his idol.

However, it must be said you can’t meet great people without having great stories and Cummins has a belter.

The year was 1975 when Patti Smith released her Horses album and Cummins remembers: “When that that first came out I was so excited. It completely changed the way I viewed music.”

He admits: “It has a knock-on effect with your work.”

Two years after that album was released, Patti Smith was to appear in Manchester to record a performance for the cult classic The Old Grey Whistle Test.

Cummins and his friend decided to head down to the studios that day to see what they could sort out: “We told [the bouncers] that we there to write-up a review on Patti Smith and we blagged our way in.”

Once inside, and in the presence of Patti Smith, you may believe that it couldn’t have got any better, but you’d be wrong.

“As we were watching her she saw my Buzzcocks badge and said that she wanted to wear it, so for the entire set she was wearing my badge,”  exclaimed Cummins.

This is a tale that can’t help but to generate a strong feeling of jealousy in the pit of your very soul.

With his career as a vast expanse before him there are many more who are yet to scope down his lens.

Cummins already has those in mind: “Old Jazz musicians like Ornet Coleman.”

Tom Waits and Rufus Wainright are also thrown into the mix: “I think they’re great and are at the top of their game.”

According to these responses it is safe to say there is much more to expect from Kevin Cummins, so stay tuned.

The Exemplar: Joy Division exhibition will open to the public on Friday 6 January and runs until the end of February. A book signing will take place on Saturday 7 January with Kevin Cummins and New Order’s Stephen Morris.

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