Interesting interview about Joy Division with legendary photographer Kenny Cummins.
The Mancunian photographer’s seminal shoot with Joy Division has been selected for the British Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale
Kevin Cummins is one of Britain’s most acclaimed rock photographers. A former staff photographer for the NME, Cummins has taken shots of some of the world’s most recognisable musicians, including Mick Jagger, Morrissey, David Bowie and Patti Smith.
Perhaps his most iconic shoot, however, was the one he did with a fledgling Joy Division in January 1979 in Hulme, Manchester. The black and white photographs, taken for an NME cover shoot, were key to framing the bleak intensity of the band’s – and particularly singer Ian Curtis’s – image.
Several of these classic pictures are being shown as part of the A Clockwork Jerusalem exhibition on the British Pavilion at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale. We caught up with Cummins to talk about his classic photographs and his memories of Joy Division.
How well did you know Joy Division before the January 1979 shoot?
I’d worked with them a few times and I’d probably seen live them 20 times. I saw their very first gig at the Electric Circus in May 1977 when they were still Warsaw. Everybody in Manchester who went to gigs religiously knew everybody else.
Were you a fan of the band at that point?
No, I didn’t think they were very good then – and I think they’d admit they weren’t. It was only when [producer] Martin Hannett got hold of them and spent some time with them recording the first album they suddenly became the band we felt they could be. Left to their own devices, they’d have probably turned into Bon Jovi. Some of us saw something different in them.
They needed people like you and Hannett to bring that side out of them?
[Laughs] I’d like to think I saved them from being Bon Jovi! They wanted to be a rock band.
How much did your photos frame Joy Division’s image?
I was careful with the shots – I’d never photograph Ian smiling, because that wasn’t how we wanted him to look. It was media manipulation. We wanted them to look like very serious young men, visually intimidating. And black and white suited them – [former Joy Division bassist] Peter Hook says you think of Joy Division as a black and white band.
And the photographs sort of tied in with their sound, too…
The shot of them on the bridge summed their sound up in one picture. It couldn’t have been a photograph of Buzzcocks or any of their contemporaries, it could only be Joy Division, and when you look at that photograph you know exactly what they’re going to sound like. That was the intention.
Tell me about taking the classic picture of Ian Curtis smoking the cigarette
I knew I wanted Ian on the cover on his own, because I always feel a single image is much more striking. He stood, leaning against the lamppost by the roadside, and I just said to him ‘drift away and think about something that interests you’ – rather than taking any notice of the other three who are trying to take the p— constantly. So it looks like he’s so isolated in the cold in Manchester – but the reality is the other three are desperately trying to make him laugh.
The shoot was little more than a week after Ian Curtis had had a seizure after a gig in London. Did you sense him struggling to come to terms with his epilepsy and depression?
We didn’t know what is was [Ian illness] – we knew he was a bit more delicate than the others. Even [Joy Division drummer] Stephen [Morris] has said ‘we’d like to think if he’d come up to us and said he was having a bad time, we’d say let’s just cancel a few gigs and cool down for a bit, but we wouldn’t, we’d have told him to pull himself together.’ Lads didn’t talk to each other about emotions in the Seventies.
What was Ian Curtis like to be around?
He did withdraw quite often. One thing I remember: lads didn’t carry bags in those days, but Ian would have a carrier bag with him full of notebooks and sheets of A4 and he’d write ideas and lyrics down. But then the singer always wants to be different.
What were they like to see live?
Quite dangerous, in a way, because Ian did seem to lose control on stage. I’m not saying he was having a fit, but he did go off into his own world at times. I always felt anything could happen on stage with them. In March 1977 Iggy Pop played in Manchester and threw a chair at me – thought he later apologised – and I always felt Ian was a bit like that; if there was anything loose he might knock it into the audience. The gigs were always exciting because of that unpredictable nature.
You can’t have imagined the legacy of the band then?
We talk about Joy Division now and they are probably as important as the Velvet Underground, but then it didn’t feel like that – they were playing gigs outside of Manchester and only getting 50-100 people in! We didn’t know what was going to happen in the future, we didn’t know Ian was going to die. If any of us had known we might have taken steps to do something about. But they were kids – talking about girls, beer, music, football. You’re not thinking about your legacy at 22 or 23.
And the shoot?
When I shot it I just thought it’s for next week’s NME. I didn’t think I’d be standing in St Mark’s Square in Venice talking about it 35 years later. But it became the shoot that defined me in a way, as well as defining the band. That’s quite odd for a session I did when I was 25.
By James Lachno