‘Like a Francis Bacon painting’ … Mark E Smith of the Fall, photographed in his later years. Photograph: Kevin Cummins
A compilation of over 40 years’ worth of pictures of the Fall was put together by the guy who produced more than 250 cover shots for the rock weekly. We made Manchester famous,” he claims
Working for NME was my one career goal, says Kevin Cummins. “That’s what I dreamed,” It’s a fantasy that undoubtedly came true. He spent decades working with the music magazine, including ten years as head photographer, where he took more than 250 album covers.
Both his grandparents and father were passionate amateur photographers. He recalls, “When I was a kid, I used to spend hours in the darkroom.” His first really professional shot as a student was of David Bowie playing live in 1973. He afterwards went on to study photography in Salford.
Cummins, along with music writer Paul Morley, embarked on a charm offensive to persuade NME that Manchester deserved to be acknowledged despite being “cripplingly shy” and more at ease in front of the camera. He remembers, “We would make up stories and spam the music papers.”
Their fervor paid off, and they were hired to cover bands like Joy Division and the local scene that was just starting to take off. Later, Cummins would capture some of the most well-known photos of the crew. Paul and I “put Manchester on the map,” he claims, sounding conceited. “We were able to push all of our own bands incredibly hard.”
After relocating to London in 1987, Cummins had a close connection to Manchester, documenting the music of the city from the post-punk era to acid house, baggy, and Britpop. He photographed everyone from Madonna at the Haçienda to Oasis at Maine Road.
The Fall, who are included in the new book Telling Stories and in Cummins’ photographs of the group from 1977 until only four years before the passing of its leader Mark E. Smith, were one band with whom he maintained strong ties.
Putting together the book proved poignant despite Smith being a particularly unpredictable, sometimes cantankerous, and irascible figure – “A diet of bitter and speed doesn’t really help you to be fully formed,” adds Cummins. He claims that looking at old images is similar to reading ancient diaries. It’s emotional. I only realized how long Mark and I had been together when I put everything in place. From the early photos of him as a youthful, slender man to the latter ones, when his skin was deteriorating,
Cummins can’t completely shake off his NME years, despite the fact that he has written multiple books and shot photos for various outlets all over the globe. He chuckles as he remembers a recent photoshoot with Noel Gallagher, “I still leave space for the NME logo in the top left corner.” It is automated.
His approach was always fan-focused, even though his art was shown in numerous galleries and the London V&A even bought his first-ever Bowie photograph. I like the concept that people would cut out my photos from NME and hang them on their walls, the man claims. “Having your photo on someone’s bedroom wall was just as amazing as having one in the National Portrait Gallery. Since they were consciously ripping it out and placing it there. If folks are doing that, you know you’re doing your job well.
The Mitchell Beazley book Telling Stories: Photographs of the Fall by Kevin Cummins is now available.
Northern exposure: five of the best by Kevin Cummins
Paint it blue … the Stone Roses. Photograph: /Kevin Cummins
The Stone Roses (1989) “So many photographers have said to me that once that picture was taken there was never any point in shooting the Stone Roses again because you have taken the ultimate picture of that band. That was intentional. I wanted to take a picture that defined them and that’s what happened.”
Mark E Smith (2011), main picture “He looks as if he could be a Francis Bacon painting,” says Cummins. “Contorted, leaning and gurning towards the camera, mouth drooping, sores at the corner of his lips, hair long and dishevelled.”
This nation’s saving grace … the Fall. Photograph: Kevin Cummins
The Fall (1978) “I began photographing the Fall at the beginning of their career in 1977 and continued to drop in and out of their story over the next 40 years.”
Stay beautiful … Richey Edwards. Photograph: Kevin Cummins
Richey Edwards, Manic Street Preachers (1990) “I thought if we could put an icon [Marilyn]on an icon and turn it into something almost sacred, it’d be a picture everyone would want on their wall.”
Human behaviour … Björk. Photograph: Kevin Cummins
Björk (1993) “A cover shoot for NME. I was doing a range of headshots and she just pulled her tongue out at me. NME always wanted eye contact for a cover because it would be displayed on the bottom shelf at the newsagent; you’d only see the top half of the picture, so that top half had to be strong.”