Sunday, March 22, 2015
If anyone can claim to be the house photographer for the Manchester music scene since the 1970s, it is Kevin Cummins. Born in the shadow of Maine Road, Manchester City’s old ground, he began photographing Buzzcocks, The Fall and other bands of the city’s fledgling punk scene following the Sex Pistols’ 1976 gigs at the Lesser Free Trade Hall. And the next year, Cummins was on hand to document the Pistols’ final British gig, a benefit for striking firefighters and their children on Christmas Day in Huddersfield. But it was to be the music that emerged from Manchester in the wake of punk that brought his photographs to the wider audiences of the NME and The Face.
His images of Joy Division, New Order and The Smiths are some of the most well-known in rock photography and all of those artists feature in an exhibition of Cummins’ work currently running in St. Leonards-on-Sea. Disclosure is a retrospective, at the Lucy Bell Gallery in Norman Road, spanning his forty-year career. As well as iconic images of later musicians from his home town, such as The Stone Roses and Oasis, there are portraits of David Bowie and Sinead O’Connor on show, and some of the last photographs of Richey Edwards of Manic Street Preachers.
The writer Paul Morley once said that he seemed to have been writing about Joy Division for most of his life; and it must be similar for Cummins as it his work with that band, and Ian Curtis in particular, that endures the most and will always ensure their names are inextricably linked: Curtis, cigarette in hand against the black walls of the bands’ rehearsal room; Curtis on stage, shirt untucking, arms raised in mid-dervish dance; Curtis, in the freezing cold, wearing the mac that launched a thousand rain-coated gloomsters (myself included) in tribute. But it is a photograph of the whole band that rivals Peter Saville’s artwork for their debut album as the most iconic Joy Division image.
The group had shown Saville an illustration, from the Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Astronomy, of the first pulsar discovered, CP 1919. The graphic, depicting the radio waves emitting from the collapsed star, was used in negative by Saville and centred in splendid isolation against an ocean of black, with no text. The sense of space on the cover was an uncanny reflection of the space within the music and it is immediately recognisable, without words, as a motif for the group. And Cummins’ photograph of the four band-members on a snow-covered footbridge in late 1979, achieves something similar. The dominance of the white space of sky and snow, the hidden blocks of Hulme and the symmetry of the railings pointing to the band – unposed, adrift and barely identifiable - all contribute to a beautiful image that captures perfectly the essence of their sound.
Disclosure is at Lucy Bell Fine Art, 46 Norman Road, St. Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex, TN38 0EJ until 10th April 2015. Entrance free.
Gallery open Tuesday – Saturday 11am-4pm, Sunday 1-4pm.
Kevin Cummins is giving a talk at the gallery on Thursday 2nd April 7-9pm. Entrance £5, booking essential.