The mythology of rock music is not crafted by musicians alone. While now we can access the most personal moments of a star’s life, only a short time ago they were mysterious creatures. Their images were crafted by gigs, rare TV appearances or pages in the music papers. So if you looked to the latter while following your idol, you’ve possibly encountered the photographic work of Kevin Cummins. Across a career which included 25 years with the New Musical Express, he’s captured some of the most enduring images in rock’s legacy. “I felt I had a responsibility to people by showing in a picture what that band would sound like,” he tells me.
His hand in crafting rock iconology traces back his days at art school. Taking a camera to gigs in Manchester, he’d photograph from the crowd. “When the Ziggy Stardust tour got into full swing in June ‘73, I went and took some pictures there. The V&A bought one from me, so I thought this would be a quite a nice way of earning a living.” Then as punk began its spiky ascendancy, he found himself perfectly placed to capture a blossoming local scene. “Paul Morley had just started writing for the NME, so we used to bombard the music press with pictures and words.” For a few this era will now be a collection of uneven memories, for most a series of embarrassing anecdotes from older family members. At the time punk culture offered Britain’s youth an intoxicating collision of art, music and fashion.
Then everybody had their opinion on punk and each town was stacked with kids eager to get involved. “As soon as one or two bands start there’s always a scene that grows around them. It does inspire, and I think that’s why Manchester became so important. I was there with Paul and we were able to manipulate that a little bit, to make it work and bring it to people’s attentions.” The event which truly galvanised Cummins and many of his contemporaries was a Sex Pistols show in the city, an event which was ostensibly a Year Zero for ‘Madchester’. Organised by the Buzzcocks, its tiny crowd included members of Joy Division; Factory Records luminaries Martin Hannett and Tony Wilson, Mark E Smith, Mick Hucknall, Morrissey and a postman called Jon, with thousands of others claiming attendance. “We wouldn’t be talking about any of this if I’d actually taken a camera to that gig,” Cummins laughs. “The whole mythology of Manchester would have been blown out of the water, because we’d have known who all 48 people in that audience were. It’s probably the most important picture I never took.” While he was becoming increasingly successful as a photographer, constantly travelling down to London proved prohibitively expensive. So he concentrated on photographing local shows, resultantly doing more than nearly anyone to forge northern music folk-lore.
Scorned by parents who’d lived through post-war austerity, despised by an establishment which saw standards eroding and adored by a media eager to be outraged, punk took cultural rebellion to a new level. Now the (somewhat loose) 40th anniversary of this zeitgeist-shaking movement is being marked with a special exhibition at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery. With 40 photographs by Kevin Cummins and Brighton’s own Ian Dickson, the show looks back at British history’s most energetic youth phenomena. It presents the pair’s portraits of the era’s bands, including Sex Pistols, The Damned, The Clash, Buzzcocks and Joy Division. Alongside sits a range of punk memorabilia lent by Cummins, and the 1977 film Punk in London. “I’ve always kept stuff like that, because I thought if I do a book about this I’d want the ephemera around it.” One of the show’s most striking images features a young fan posing in a derelict street. Working as a hospital radiographer by day, she’d get changed in her car before going to gigs so her parents didn’t see her punk clothes. “The dress thing for most people outside of London, who weren’t in a position to go and buy expensive Vivienne Westwood creations, was just wearing their old school uniforms with slogans written on it.” She represents a generation who felt imprisoned by traditionalistic attitudes. They embraced a vibrant new philosophy where anything was possible. Suddenly what mattered most was enthusiasm, creativity and a desire to ignore expectations.
Cummins found himself in great demand during the years after punk, Manic Street Preachers, REM, The Smiths, Oasis, Foo Fighters, U2 and The Stone Roses being just a few of the bands he’s immortalised. Over this career he developed a responsibility as much to the bands as his employers. “There is a massive element of trust, and if you betray that you’re not going to work with them again. They’re quite delicate flowers, musicians. They do fall out with lots of people.” But like many professional photographers, Cummins is finding his art enduring a state of flux. Although more photos are captured than ever, the overall quality is sharply declining. It’s now rare to see an intriguing and well-composed image, least of all on social media. “It’s almost we’re the new Victorians, and we’ve just discovered photography. We’re just photographing every second of our lives, thinking that somebody is going to be interested.” This proliferation of senseless documentation is particularly evident at gigs. Audiences are experiencing these in a different way, filming themselves to capture their enjoyment. Even post-song applause is subdued, because everyone is holding a phone aloft. “What do you do with that? Do you go home, ring your mates and say: ‘I went to a brilliant gig last night – I’ve made a documentary. Do you want to come and watch it?’ It doesn’t exist unless you have an image…” He does believe that the situation will level out, as value eventually becomes more important than volume. Hopefully this will happen before the internet buckles under the weight of selfies and dinner shots.
Right now public figures have never seemed more normal, as all of their lives’ mundanity squeezes into 140 characters and low quality snaps. “It’s very difficult to build an underground movement if everyone’s there is on Twitter, Snapchat or YouTube. I don’t have a problem with it as such, but people are using it badly.” Stars like Taylor Swift only have to publicly pass wind and a million people will be discussing, analysing and remixing it within minutes. “I think people see too much. I wouldn’t have wanted David Bowie to tweet pictures of his breakfast, because I wanted to think he ate moon dust and slept in a spaceship. I didn’t want to think he just did the same as everyone else.” For a period of time it was impossible to see or hear the Sex Pistols, unless you bought their records or went to a gig not banned by the local council. This fierce atmosphere of infamy only served to reinforce the mythos around the band. “Rob Gretton legendary Manchester band manager wouldn’t let Joy Division or New Order do interviews as such. It built up a lot of mystique about them.” Icons like Bowie, Jimi Hendrix and The Smiths would have been distinctly less intriguing in our age of internet osmosis. In the absence of plentiful information, fans back then were instead compelled to listen to a band’s music and forced to form their own opinions.
Roughly 40 years on from punk and youth culture seems arguably devoid of potency or magic. Gratification is instant, so many things have lost all real value. It’s also difficult to be truly innovative, outrageous or create something a legacy, for now at least. This isn’t better or worse, it’s just very different. “I’d love to think somewhere, in a city in Britain, something like that is happening and we just don’t know about it. But, because there’d be 100 people taking photographs of them every time they left the house, it’s unlikely.”
Photo-punk: 40 images from the birth of punk by Ian Dickson and Kevin Cummins comes to Brighton Museum’s Prints & Drawings Gallery from Tues 22 Nov – Sun 5 March. A special preview of the show, featuring Simon Price hosting a Q&A with Dickson and Cummins, takes place on Mon 21 Nov. Advance tickets come with a FREE Photo-punk poster while stocks last.