If you’ve seen Twenty Four Hour Party People, then you’ll know that it’s considered that the Sex Pistols’ gig at the Free Trade Hall in 1976 was a key moment in British music history. New Order were there, as well as some other music-to-be legends. If you’ve ever seen that front cover of the NME, then you’ll have seen the work of a photographer-to-be who was also at that gig. His name was Kevin Cummins. I never read the NME – I though it was too pretentious, and all my peers read it, so Sounds was my magazine of choice. I also didn’t properly appreciate art. I was a teenager.
Joy Division were a massive influence in my life, even though I was born a shade too late. I was only just turned 11 when Curtis died in 1980. The album “Closer” though was my teenage anthem album with the haunting ‘Martin Hannett’ drums at the beginning of Atrocity Exhibition hooking me within the first few moments. Music aside though, my only real visual connection to Joy Division has been through the photographs of Kevin Cummins, Bernard Pierre-Wolff, and through the very stylized graphic design of Peter Saville.
This article isn’t about Joy Division though.
Part of doing an A Level in Photography revolves around research. So it was research that drew me to Kevin Cummins’ work. When faced with topics and themes to shoot, it’s easy to begin by looking at the work of big named photographers like Bresson, Adams, Avedon, Erwitt or Parr. Photography is art, and art is all about appreciation. There are rules, guides, recommendations and theories, but at the end of the day it’s all about what you think and/or feel when you look at an image. That’s how it works for me anyway. Do you like to look at it?
Kevin Cummins was really the focus of my first research based project and the photographs in his book are subjectively brilliant. It’s not so much a picture book about Manchester, but more a trip down memory lane for me as a dedicated Peel listener. “This is what life was like”, I tell my daughter as we leaf through black and white images of Hulme in Manchester. When we get to the image of a lad in a crowd, with a can of evo-stick in his hand and a spaced out look, I pause. Another drug of the late 70’s. Glue. I’d forgotten about that. The shot of the Happy Mondays’ Bez later on in the book continues in this vein of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. As Stuart Maconie puts is in his piece speaking about 1986: “Rampant privatisation meant that you couldn’t even rely on a bus to get you out of town, though you could count on the cheap brown heroin coming up and down the West Coast main line to get you out of everything else.”
These aren’t just rock photographs. This is a book of social documentary. And it’s not just the “It’s grim up north” crowd that will appreciate it. The book itself through from the mid 70’s to the mid noughties which is a whistlestop tour over 30 years in 380+ pages – it’s a weighty tome, and it’s not all about the pictures. Commentary from the likes of Paul Morely, Stuart Maconie and even John Harris (of Sounds fame!) really add some wrapping to the photographs themselves. Even the Afterword supplied by Tony Wilson, three days prior to his death, has a poignant part in the book.
Taking the book apart, it’s broken down into four sections. Each section heralded by a writer speaking about that era. The first “Phase” starts at the beginning and covers a time period of late 70’s to early 80’s. Iggy Pop, The Fall, The Buzzcocks, and of course, the iconic Joy Division shots. Wooden floored rehearsal studios, grey concrete housing and overpasses covered in snow. Cummins worked with what he had and looks like he shot exclusively in B&W. As he states in the forward “I rarely shot more than one roll of film. I couldn’t really afford to.” This was “My Manchester”. By the time the mid eighties arrived, I wasn’t fussed for the Smiths or the Happy Mondays. I was 5 years behind everyone else and listening to my extremely thick vinyl copies of “Still” and “Closer” mmixing it up with “Three Imaginary Boys” and the Stranglers’ “No More Heroes”. We’d moved “dahn sahth”. I was no longer a northerner and I was probably more than 5 years behind everyone else…
And that’s where the second “Phase” of the book begins. Covering ground from New Order, through the Smiths, the Mondays and the Stone Roses. In fact the next three “Phases” cover these bands as they age, moving into the “Britpop” 90’s with Oasis lest we forget.
Taking the book as a whole, and leafing through a 30 year career, it’s easy to see how Cummins has progressed and improved as a photographer. It’s also easy to see that he’s not lost his touch on/back stage (or out front!) managing to capture the musicians with some remarkable portraits in undoubtedly difficult shooting conditions. Looking for the Light through the Pouring Rain is a real slice of Manchester over the course of three decades. This isn’t a “rock portrait” book, and it isn’t a Manchester promotion. It is what it is. One man’s view through the lens, of a city, as it created what would turn out to be some of the biggest influences on modern music. I’m glad I’ve seen the world through Cummins’ eyes.
Having recently been released in soft cover (I’m fortunate to have a hardback copy) this is an absolute steal for £13 at Amazon (September 2013) and would grace the shelf of any photographer with an interest in music or Manchester.
The smaller the attendance, the bigger the history. There were 12 people at the last supper, half a dozen at Kitty Hawk. Archimedes was on his own in the bath!
Tony Wilson speaking about the Free Trade Hall gig
You can see more of Kevin’s work here or you can have a look at the video below. Be warned though, it contains strong language (it has real live Mancunians in it) and may not be safe for work!