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The Interview: Kevin Cummins – Made in Manchester

After 40 years behind the lens, it's only right that legendary rock photographer Kevin Cummins' legacy is celebrated. He talks to Mike Gibson about music, Manchester and why he still doesn't court the limelight

"I DON'T SHOOT FOR the gallery wall," Kevin Cummins tells me. For an era-defining artist who's about to have his work displayed in a retrospective travelling from Paris to London, that may seem an incongruous turn of phrase.

Half an hour with the man behind the camera, however, and it makes more sense. The Mancunian photographer may have made it his life's work taking gritty, defining images of bands from his hometown and beyond, and he may be being celebrated in Disclosure, an exhibition featuring some of his most iconic rock images from a career that's spanned 40 years, but the man himself has never done his job with one eye on the resultant exhibition.

"I shoot for the following week's or month's magazine. That's got to be the reason for doing it, or you're not doing your job. Some shots you don't think 'Right, I've just done a defining image.' It becomes that, because it's the picture that's associated with the artist the most."

The sentiment is understandable from someone who's spent his life behind the lens, rather than in front of it. But still, it surprises me: this is a man who played an enormous role in propelling Joy Division, the Smiths and Oasis to superstardom. Name an iconic Manchester band or a moment that sparked a movement; he's documented it.

Rock 'n' roll is built on mythology – there’s very little of that now. You can’t make stuff up

Before we delve deeper into the annals of the Manchester music scene, let's rewind. To the 1970s – before Oasis, before Madchester nights at the Haçienda – when Cummins first picked up a camera and started shooting.

His formative years were spent travelling around Manchester to gigs, before he was commissioned by the New Musical Express – a marriage that would span more than 25 years. He shot bands and artists from all over, but Manchester was always at the heart of his career. It’s the home of his beloved Manchester City FC, but also the home of so many of the bands his photography helped define.

"I think there were interesting scenes in other cities, obviously," he says, "but there wasn't a music writer there like Paul Morley in Manchester, or a photographer like me. We just pushed Manchester constantly. And the music press were delighted, because it meant they didn't have to leave London."

His portraiture of Joy Division's early years thrust him into the cultural mainstream, and presented him as someone who could not only get access to some of the biggest names on the scene, but capture them on a human level.

"I like shooting people who are very aware of how they look," he says. "People like Morrissey, Courtney Love, John Lydon – people who understand the medium, and understand what makes a great picture. It's difficult when you get a band turning up who have got absolutely no interest in the process."

One band that typified this strong sense of self-identity was Oasis. Perhaps the quintessential Manchester band, Cummins seemed destined to shoot them. "Noel grew up looking at what was going on in Manchester, as well as I did, so when Oasis formed it was obvious to them that I should shoot them. I did quite a lot of their early sessions, until they became the property of the tabloids.

"Oasis kind of put a full stop on everything. I think what Noel did was very clever, because he looked at everything that had gone before, put it all in an album, and said 'Right – follow that.' There was nowhere for anyone to go."

With the musical landscape having changed so vastly in the last decade or so, does Cummins feel he could do it in this era? He doesn't think so. "Rock 'n' roll is built on mythology, and there's very little of that now, because everybody knows everything immediately. You can't make stuff up.

"If Twitter had been around when the Sex Pistols played the Lesser Free Trade Hall, we'd have known who all 48 people in the audience were, there would have been a load of moaning about the gig, and the whole Manchester scene wouldn't have developed."

For every band, movement, and moment in Manchester, there was one photographer there to capture it. Forty years of music history; one man's lens. And, despite his modesty, it seems only right that he's honoured for it. ■

Disclosure runs until 11 April at Lucy Bell Fine Art. For more information: lucy-bell.com

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