Photographer Kevin Cummins at the British Music Experience: Bowie, The Smiths and the three song rule

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Kevin Cummins at BME

Kevin Cummins at BME

As legendary photographer Kevin Cummins shares his war stories at the British Music Experience, Getintothis’ Cath Bore was there to soak it all up.

There was every chance Kevin Cummins’ talk at British Music Experience was going to be a nostalgic yawn down memory lane.

The photographer, who has worked with the biggest names from the past 40 years – ‘they’re all fucking DEAD’, said The Happy Mondays‘ Shaun Ryder when told of Cummins’ impressive CV by Factory boss Tony Wilson.

However, the event, a combination of films of his work and conversation, managed to swerve that particular cul de sac.

Of course stories of grabbing iconic shots were shared, and tales about difficult and grumpy pop stars, but Cummins started by telling us about the early days, getting free tickets to see the band Imagination, and being unable to give them away as everyone insisted on giving money for them. It was then, he realised how lucrative the music business can be.

Oh my, how times have changed. But we’ll get to that later.

Hours spent with David Bowie in his Tin Machine (“tea machine”) period led to one long frustrating afternoon, the star wearing an unbecoming quilted bomber jacket patterned with gold eagles, and Cummins wanting more than anything else in the world for him to lash the ghastly thing.

But you can’t tell David Bowie that what he’s wearing is rubbish, can you? It’s Bowie, after all.

During the post-Smiths years, Morrissey and Johnny Marr clumsily used Cummins photography as a way of having a pop at each other, but such behaviour from a 2017 perspective comes across as a quite charming and naivé way of going about things.

Lloyd Cole knocking him back for a photo session, wanting to lose a bit of weight first raised a wry smile; Lloyd Cole the least rock n roll of all the pop stars, suitably using the least rock n roll excuse ever. Love it.

And from now, each time everyone in the British Music Experience on Thursday night hears a Duran Duran record we will in future think of Simon Le Bon’s rock n roll behaviour via fax – you had to be there really.

Read about Shout About it Live, Liverpool’s music photography festival, here

Once the war stories were out of the way, Cummins’ opinions of how music photography has changed in more recent years, and not necessarily for the better, was of interest.

Every working photographer, including our exceptional talent here at Getintothis, will tell you at most shows photographers are required to leave after three songs, so it’s a case of get good shots early on, or you’re stuffed.

Prince’s two song rule meant a disaster at one show, he recalls; song one was performed in pitch black, the second under a thick glaze of purple light; photos were impossible.

At a recent Stones Roses gig, no one managing decent shots in the brief window of time, Cummins triumphed by taking pictures with his iPhone once he and colleagues were shooed out of the photo pit.

I ask him about the role of fan photography, at gigs. Especially in view of that Stone Roses photo on his mobile, as it ended up being bought by Q magazine…

He has ‘no problem’ with fans taking photos at gigs, but questions why things and events have to be documented to ‘prove’ it happened.

Memories, he says, are the source of his enjoyment of gigs loved, looking back. You don’t need to look at a photo to recall that pleasure, surely?

Attending a Noel Gallagher gig at Dingwalls meant watching the show through the rows of phone screens held up because the real view was obscured by them. I think we can all sympathise on that one.

Photographers play a supportive role in the music business, a role in helping build and artist’s image. The trend for bands to document themselves via photos on social media, Cummins reckons, ruins the mystery. When you know what a pop star has for breakfast, the shine of the glitter dulls, it ruins that sense of other-worldliness, that thing which makes the unique fan-star relationship so special.

The thorny issue of copyright control is raised, and Cummins cites a recent example of how sixteen of his photographs were used in the booklet accompanying a compilation album ‘by accident’ and how the record label admitted the ‘accident’, yet still requested their use for free (they didn’t get them for free, by the way).

It seems photographers are up against it now more than ever before, especially fresh talent.

More artists or their management are requiring restrictive contracts to be signed by photographers, and copyright theft is rife.  It makes one wonder how new photographers, those building a portfolio and trying to start a career are meant to progress.

The talk ended on a positive note, with a sneak peek of poignant shots taken by him over a period of weeks and months, of the momentos and keepsakes fans have left at Ian Curtis‘ grave in Macclesfield Cemetery.

Some of the items are intimate and personal, yet left in this very public place; rosary beads, flowers, and love letters sharing the most private of feelings.

We look forward to seeing what becomes of this beautiful collection of images.

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