Older readers will remember our post from the opening of the exhibition “Zoom. Italian Design and the Photography of Aldo and Marirosa Ballo” at the Vitra Design Museum back in April 2011.
As an exhibition “Zoom” explores the birth of the Italian furniture design myth/legend – a myth/legend established, propagated, and maintained by photos as expressive as they are timeless. In that post we compared the creation of designer furniture legends with the creation of music legends using the example of Kevin Cummins’ evocative and timeless photos of the Manchester band Joy Division.
All contemporary cultural icons exist on account of a few defining, timeless, photos, being the not too subtle subtext.
Last week an exhibition opened in Berlin featuring some 30+ photos by Kevin Cummins of New Order, presented alongside all Peter Saville’s record covers for the band.
And so at the exhibition opening we took the opportunity to continue the “Zoom” theme and spoke to Kevin Cummins about his work with Joy Division/New Order and the photographers role in helping bands establish themselves.
(smow)blog: Legend has it that you were more or less told to photograph Joy Division only in black and white. Was that really the case?
Kevin Cummins: No, not at all. The main reason that Joy Division were only photographed in black and white is that the music press didn’t publish in colour in those days and so because I was paying for my own film and processing there was little point in using colour film. But also Joy Division weren’t the huge band they are now. In Manchester and London they were relatively big, but in, for example, Huddersfield or Leeds they might only get a crowd of 100. Even when Ian died the Manchester Evening News story was like a paragraph and a half on page 8 – it wasn’t a big story. And so I only had limited output for the photos and couldn’t afford to take shots that no one would or could publish.
(smow)blog: The photos that you did take went on to define Joy Division. When you shot them did you have a “greater concept” in mind?
Kevin Cummins: I think what I was trying to do with those pictures was to capture their sound in the picture. If, for example, you look at the photo of them on Epping Walk Bridge in the snow, there is a lot of space, it’s very bleak and you know what that band are going to sound like when you see that photograph. It’s not a picture of Take That!
(smow)blog: And then came New Order and the first colour photos in Washington DC. Why the decision to move away from black and white?
Kevin Cummins: The reason we did the photos in colour was because I felt their was a renewed optimism in the band. It was a couple of years after Ian’s death and the band’s sound was starting to change; it was coming away from that austere Manchester sound and they were starting to work with people like Arthur Baker and getting a dancier sound to their music. And so I wanted some pictures of almost a rebirth. And so I suggested to the NME editor that we shoot in colour rather than black and white, and at that time we were still only publishing a few pages in colour. The idea was the Englishmen in America, and it’s almost a tribute to David Hockney with the pool setting, but still cropped quite close on the faces which I had always done. And then we left the film rebate on the edges to give it that Americana, Hollywood feel.
(smow)blog: Which brings us to our real question, do you feel that as a photographer you can influence a musician or bands career?
Kevin Cummins: I think you can definitely. Because when you work with musicians and when you work with them regularly you can take them up another notch each time you photograph them; even if the musicians don’t always agree with that. Most bands think they are in control of their progression, but if you work with a photographer who is sympathetic to your sound and what your doing then, as I say, they can take you up a notch each time they photograph you. It’s a relationship between the image and the music.
You’re not in band unless you’ve got an ego and want to be photographed and so a photographer can help you develop as long as its a sympathetic look. I’m not going to stitch a band up, I want the pictures to have some legacy.
(smow)blog: Legacy is good word to end. You’ve shot a range of classic shots both from live performances and also as portraits. As a photographer do you prefer live shots or “still life”, portrait, set ups?
Kevin Cummins: Portraits, because I like to create a picture. If you’re allowed to photograph a full concert then I think you can make something from that, but, ultimately, if you want to do a career defining image of a band it has to be a portrait. And with Joy Division, possibly New Order, definitely the Stone Roses I’ve been fortunate to achieve that.
New Order – An exhibition featuring works by Peter Saville and Kevin Cummins can be viewed at .hbc Berlin until July 4th 2012