In 2002, music photographer Kevin Cummins was approached by a young woman after giving a speech in Manchester.
He didn’t recognize her immediately, but it was Natalie Curtis, the daughter of the late Joy Division singer, Ian.
He wanted to ask a simple question: Did Cummins have any pictures of his smiling father?
Cummins famously photographed Joy Division in the late 1970s and his atmospheric images have come to define the image not only of the band but also of the post-punk music scene in industrial Manchester.
When the singer took his own life at the age of 23 in 1980, the famous black and white photos took on even greater resonance. The images are now published on Joy Division: Juvenes, an updated collection of his work with the band.
But despite Natalie’s request for a reminder of her father’s happier side, Cummins had deliberately given the images a somber mood. He explains that “very rarely” he took pictures that captured the band when they were all smiles.
“That wasn’t the order of the day. I wanted to photograph the band looking like serious young people,” he says. “If they smiled on a photo, I generally didn’t take it because I couldn’t afford to waste any film.
“I wanted … to create an image for them so that people would look at them and think that maybe they were a lot more cerebral than they were and that made them slightly unreachable.”
This month marks the first time the book has come out to a mass audience, after a limited run of only 226 copies in 2007.
While the images are of significance to fans of the group, they are of particular personal significance to Natalie Curtis, who grew up knowing her father’s power as a frontman in part through the work of Cummins and other photographers.
“Since I was a child I was aware of the band and I knew that my father was the singer, but seeing the black and white prints scattered on the carpet brought tangibility,” she writes in thoughts reprinted in the book.
As Joy Division “becomes fiction” in her own words, including as in 2002’s 24 Hour Party People and 2007 biopic Control, Natalie explains that she came to “enjoy the solitude of the photographs.”
“The images contain an unexpected tenderness, the band captured on their own terms by someone who understood their world.”
Few photographers could boast such a close relationship with the band as Cummins. His images of the band reflected their sound and embodied the steely mood of the time: cold, but downright tough.
They were modern rock “seen through night vision goggles – grainy and cloudy”, wrote Bob Stanley in his book Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop.
This is reflected in perhaps the most famous shots of Cummins’ Joy Division, taken on the frozen bridge of Epping Walk on the Princess Parkway in Hulme, Manchester, in the winter of 1979.
“I had to photograph them in black and white because the music press only published in black and white, nobody published in color,” Cummins explains. “Consequently, everything about that time is in black and white. What has happened over the years is that it defines how you think about the band.
“In a way, we were lucky,” he continues. “The cold and the snow helped a lot because I did half of the session indoors, but we did half of it on the snow which gave a more graphic and clearer quality than we would have had if it were just a typical drizzly gray. of Manchester day. “
Although Cummins had a style in mind, the power of the imagery means that they have taken on a life of their own in pop culture. “I don’t define what becomes an iconic image,” he says. “The public really defines it, because then it becomes the image that people want, share and feel.”
Referring to the photo of that snowy overpass, he continues: “Iconic is an easy word to use, but it’s an image that defines that band. And it’s the image most people think of when they think of Joy Division.”
The book also features interviews with the group’s living members – Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris – discussing their music before Joy Division morphed into New Order after Curtis died.
His creepy shots with Cummins have become synonymous with the band’s image, making him a real poster for the band’s raw emotional vulnerability and restless sound.
“He was a good person to photograph because he did what I asked him to do,” recalls the frontman’s photographer.
“He understood the process and it was easy to work with him. No one is the lead singer of a band if he’s shy and reluctant. Singers have an ego, all bands have an ego, otherwise they wouldn’t go on stage.
“I want people to be themselves and I want to get something out of them. It might be something they don’t always see in themselves.”
A series of solo portraits of the singer, taken from Parkway’s snowy shot, show him with an intense gaze, cigarette in hand, against the worn backdrop of Manchester.
“Ian has a really penetrating gaze in that photograph, because he’s looking at me, he’s not stopping his gaze in front of the camera.”
Forty years later, Cummins’ work has become something of a time capsule. “I’ve always photographed for the moment and I wanted to capture something of that moment, which is why I like to use backgrounds and cityscapes. Because they give a sense of time,” he says.
“Then, over the years, when retrospectives are done and anniversaries come into play, actually locating them at that moment is historically very important. So, in addition to shooting for the moment, you could shoot so that the story you remember them in a certain way. “
Location and surrounding culture are key to Cummins’ work, almost as important to the photo as the band itself. This is especially true of the shot of the snow-covered bridge, which would later adorn the cover of the band’s Best Of compilation.
“What I was trying to do with that shot was maybe just to place them in the context of the city. And to have an image that was almost architectural, in which the band was an addition.
“But you look at that picture and you know what that band is going to sound like.”
More recently, Cummins explains, she revisited the bridge to reflect on how things have changed since her original photo shoot. Last year, he took a photo from the bridge looking back over Manchester, “to show how the city has developed over time since then”.
“Manchester was a rather seedy and unattractive city that people wanted to leave as soon as they were old enough,” he says. “Now people are moving to Manchester and they want to go [to its] universities around the world. In 1979 they didn’t. “
“It just shows the contrast and begs the question … if Joy Division had met and formed in 2020, would their sound have been a different sound?”
Joy Division: Juvenes by Kevin Cummins is now available.
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