Kevin Cummins interview: "There were right-wingers in the arts, with Rod Stewart and Phil Collins and all those Thatcherites."

Rob Pollard interviews one of the world’s most renowned music photographers.

Kevin Cummins is one of the world’s most renowned music photographers. He has photographed David Bowie, Morrissey, Mark E. Smith, The Happy Mondays and Patti Smith, as well as working as an NME photographer from 1977-1997. However, it’s the time he spent photographing post-punk band Joy Division - where he created the defining images of a band still hugely influential today - that produced the best examples of his work. I met him in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, where we discussed the art of photography, his time working with Joy Division, and his lifelong association with the Labour Party.

When you work with a band, what is it that creates the right environment for producing lasting images?

I find it difficult photographing musicians if I don’t like them. I think there has to be a mutual respect because I think it tends to fall apart if there isn’t. I think band shots these days can be quite formulaic. I usually tell musicians that, if I was forming a band, I’d have three people in it because you can always pose three people quite well. I think four is acceptable but beyond that it’s really unwieldy; it tends to look like just a bunch of mates hanging around together. 

I think time is important as well. If you’re working with musicians you haven’t worked with before, or you haven’t seen them for a while, it’s nice to have the luxury of time on your side, and I think a lot PR and record company people don’t understand that. I’ve been on shoots where you’ll go to LA with a band for three or four days and you get introduced to them, and the PR person is prodding you and saying ‘you should take a picture of this,’ and I think ‘no I shouldn’t.’ I like to spend a couple of days without a camera so that they’re used to having me around. People work in different ways but I like to work in short bursts.

It’s interesting you mention band photography being formulaic. I was going to ask you about the band promo shot. It seems like an exhausted art form. What’s the future of that type of shot and how can it be freshened up and continued?

I don’t think it’s a valued art anymore because, at the moment, we’re in a period where everybody documents every second of their lives. Everybody’s taking photographs of everything they do. So they’ll sit there with a pint, take a picture of it, and put it on Twitter. Or they’ll have a meal somewhere and they’ll put it on Facebook, and it’s really not that interesting. And it’s also not that interesting, however fascinating musicians think they are, for them to take their own pictures on their camera phones. In the past, dressing room shots were really rare, and they were always really valued if you were able to do some pictures of a band in their dressing room. Now they do it themselves. 

I think everybody is too open with what they’re doing; there’s no mystery anymore. Consequently, there’s no musical underground because if you chance upon a band not many people have heard of, by the end of the first two numbers it’s all over Twitter and Facebook, and people have uploaded it to YouTube. It’s a very odd world at the moment, and I don’t want to sound like somebody just saying ‘I don’t understand it’ because I do understand it, but I just don’t see it’s value. I don’t understand people going to a gig and watching through an iPhone. Your experience of a gig is the vastness of it and that collective energy, it’s not standing there in your own little world viewing it on a two inch by 3 inch screen. It makes no sense to me. I went to Jack White at the Roundhouse - it was one of the itunes festival gigs - and before the gig started, the tour manager came out and said ‘put your camera phones in your pockets because we’re filming this and it’ll be better than anything you can do. We’ll also be recording it which is better than the microphone you’ve got on your camera. And we’ve got a professional photographer and you can download the pictures tomorrow and pretend you took them yourself. Just enjoy the gig.’

Can I ask you about Ian Curtis? What was he like to work with?

Quite shy. You have to remember he was young and he didn’t have a lot of experience outside of his own world. It was only when he was in the band that he went abroad. I think he’d been abroad to Paris for his honeymoon and that was it. He didn’t have any idea of what ‘abroad’ was like. 

For me, he was a bit of a lost soul. He knew what kind of stuff he was into and he couldn’t find that many people who were into the same thing. So when he went to Belgium and France, or wherever, he started to meet people who were into the same kinds of things as him, and I think that’s why he liked Annik [Honoré] and why that relationship developed. Ian was the same as a lot kids that age, he liked drinking, he liked talking about girls and liked talking about football or music. 

Why has Joy Division’s impact on music been so lasting?

Two-fold really. I think Ian died young, so automatically people have a strong interest in the legacy. And, when you read his lyrics, there was a lot of tortured, teenage angst there. When you’re a teenager you identify with that bleakness. When I was in my teens I really identified with Leonard Cohen and the kind of lyrics he was writing because you want to sit up all night analysing them and making them mean something to you. So there’s that side of it. And also Martin Hannett’s production made it timeless and because of that you can play it now and it sounds like it could have been recorded yesterday. 

Morrissey, Manchester Sept 1989

If you were just starting your career now, which bands would you be looking to attach yourself to?

It’s quite a difficult question because I don’t live in Manchester anymore and it’s a different world. I think it must be very difficult now to leave art school and get into photography and actually earn a living from it. Not that I earned a living from it initially, it took a long time before you could do that. The thing is, it’s very easy to give up because you’re not earning enough but if you want something you have to keep at it and work hard. You’ve got to put a thousand hours in and suddenly you’ll start to reap the benefit. People say to me ‘you were in the right place at the right time’ but so were 2 million other people at that time as well. I made a lot of sacrifices to do what I did. If I went to a gig, I couldn’t drink or take drugs. I had a darkroom which I used that was ten miles outside Manchester where I’d have to go after the gig and process and print the film, then drive back in to Manchester and put it on Red Star Parcels at Piccadilly station so that the NME got them for the following morning, go home have about an hours sleep, and then go back to the darkroom and print all day for them. 

Your images are often very dark and dramatic. Is there a film noir influence in your work?

No, not really. When I was studying photography I was really into Bill Brandt. Bill Brandt had a printer who printed very harshly. His earlier prints are quite normal but then in the 60s and 70s he chose to change the way he printed and printed very, very starkly and that influenced me a lot. I was really into Diane Arbus as well. When I stared studying photography, Diane Arbus had just committed suicide, which I thought was impossibly romantic. I was very interested in her work and how she approached it and a lot of the stuff she did was very dark. So they were my two main influences really. 

That dark element in your work seems like the perfect fit for Joy Division doesn’t it?

Yeah, it does. You look at those photographs and you know what they’re going to sound like. Those pictures couldn’t have been taken of The Clash, for instance, or the Jam, or any of their contemporaries, it wouldn’t have made any sense. If you look at the picture of them on the snowy bridge, it’s not even a band shot, the band are just there in the background. It’s a picture of a snowy bridge in Manchester but it defines their sound to me and it’s great that that’s how people feel about them too.

I spoke to Martin Parr earlier in the year and we were discussing the coalition’s attitude towards the artistic fraternity. What’s your opinion of their approach to the arts?

The Tories have never been interested in art have they? They’re interested in collecting it as an investment but they’re not interested in the arts and how it works. We’re in the middle of a really critical time for copyright and most of the arts bodies who protect people like me, such as the NUJ, are desperately fighting Google, who basically want to destroy copyrighting. The problem is people think everything should be free. Musicians have their work ripped off all the time, photographers do, writers do. Novelists are finding their books available to download for free, and they’re not getting royalties - none of us are. Royalties is how we earn our living but people think it shouldn’t exist. 

With that in mind, how did you feel about the contract that The Stone Roses drew up for the Heaton Park gigs in the summer?

I think it’s a disgrace. I think anything like that is absolutely disgraceful because what they’re doing is a restriction of your trade, and they’re telling you they want to own and they don’t want to pay for it. I was commissioned to photograph the German band Rammstein for the Times. They sent a seven page contract through which basically said that for €1 they would own everything I shot - I could have it published once in the Times for the piece I was shooting it for - and they could use them on their website, merchandising, album sleeves and publicity, in return for me standing there and photographing them. So I didn’t sign it. I won’t sign anything like that. It shows such a lack of respect for us and our art.

Ian Curtis / Joy Division, Leeds Sept 1979

I’ve been trying to think why it is that images aren’t as highly valued by musicians anymore. Do you think the fact that we’ve gone from LPs to CDs and now primarily to downloading means the image has been squeezed out and become less important?

No, I don’t, I think the only reason is they think that you’re earning money from their image and they want earn it, and I think it’s as basic as that. What they don’t seem to understand is that, if you treat people properly, you’ll be treated properly in return. They are trying to impose restrictions on the way we work. This doesn’t apply to me particularly because I’ve got a huge archive of work, but people who are starting now have got to earn a living. There’s a lot of antagonism between the two sides of the industry. I don’t see how anyone could earn a living from it these days. 

So, you’re a lifelong Labour member aren’t you?

Yeah. My dad took me to see Harold Wilson talking on the back of a truck prior to the 1964 election. I thought it was the most powerful thing I'd ever experienced. After the talk Wilson came over and ruffled my hair and asked me who I "voted" for. I said Labour and he gave me a Labour Party badge and told me to make sure I always did. I wore it all the way through school.

What’s you opinion of the direction the party has travelled in during your time as a member?

I think it’s gone from being a party that worked closely with the trade union movement, to one that has to compete with the Tories. It’s glib to say there’s very little difference between Labour and the Conservatives because there is a lot of difference between the parties, but I think the backgrounds of a lot of the politicians is very similar these days. If you look back to Harold Wilson’s government, how many of his top table were ex-Etonians or public school boys? Not a great many I would wager. It has a changed a lot and it changed around the time of Neil Kinnock. It had to change because the Labour Party were never, ever going to get back in to power. 

Unfortunately, there’s an awful lot of people in this country who like to be told what to do, and they always think the Tories tell them better. They’ve had it throughout their schooling with teachers telling them what to do. They like the discipline and I think they felt Labour were very indisciplined. So we got to a point with the Labour Party where we were always going to be a marginal party and it had to change. I’m not saying it changed for the better. In an ideal world I’d like them to all be hardcore socialists but they’d be unelectable because that’s not what the people in this country want. I think most people are centre-ground veering slightly to the right, and they don’t like left because the media doesn’t like the left, and the media virtually dictates the policy of this country. It tells people how to behave. If you don’t read a tabloid in England it’s like you’re living in a different world. I deliberately don’t buy them but occasionally on a Saturday when I’m on a train coming up to Manchester from London for a match I’ll read one and just think: what is this they’re talking about? I’ve got absolutely no idea. It’s like the Jimmy Saville thing at the moment, Andrew O’Hagan wrote a brilliant piece for the London Review of Books, and you compare that to the screaming headlines in the tabloids. It’s dreadful. 

It’s interesting you mention a right-wing media because an idea exists that the BBC are in fact a left-wing organisation, pedalling left-wing bias, something many commentators find a bizarre suggestion.

Well, there are left-wing journalists in the BBC and there are at most newspapers. If you’ve studied English or History at University and you want to get into journalism, then I think you’re natural leaning is left. There are left-wing journalists at the Times and the Telegraph, and even the Mail, but the proprietor isn’t. That’s the difference. I’d like to think I haven’t got a single friend who votes Tory but I possibly have!

Artists tend to be left-wing. There seems to be hardly any right-wingers in the arts.

No. Well, there were, with Rod Stewart and Phil Collins and all those Thatcherites. I’m not sure how many musicians are that into politics these days. It’s become a bit of a dirty word hasn’t it, and they don’t want to upset their record buying public. There aren’t many political lyricists anymore. 

New Order, Manchester Nov 1985

What do you think Labour’s chances are at the next election?

I like Ed Miliband. I think he is an old-school labourite because that’s how he was brought up. He understands that the Labour Party has to be modern as well; it has to be progressive. I think that was part of Labour’s problem in the 70s, they had such a small majority over the Conservatives that all their energy was going into hanging on to power rather than actually getting policy through. The unions were incredibly powerful. They could just withdraw all their votes and Labour knew it, and so there was a lot of blackmail rather than bargaining going on. In terms of 2015, I think it very much depends on the newspapers. With certain newspapers, everything is just one big fucking laugh and there are certain things they should start being serious about. They like to turn everything into some kind of cartoon strip - everyone is there to be pilloried and have the piss taken out of them - so I think it very much depends how the papers treat it. There’s a certain number of people who make their own mind up, but there’s a massive amount of people who don’t, and they’ll vote the way the paper tells them to vote. 

It’s interesting that the media opinion on Ed Miliband has shifted slightly.

Yeah, it has. I think his speech at conference was really good; I think he proved himself there. The problem for the Labour Party is the Blair years because people felt so taken in by that. We had this new dawn, and it was the most fantastic day in 1997, because, for a lot of people, to have a Labour prime minister, they’d never had that in their lives. A lot had never had the opportunity to vote for a Labour Party that had won an election. And then for Blair to do what he did was unforgivable for a lot of people in this country, certainly hardcore Labour voters. It really split the party. 

Did you attend conference?

I have been in the past but I’m not very active within the party now. My local party have asked me to be a councilor but it’d interfere with my football too much!

Can you give me a sense of what Manchester was like under Thatcher?

Well, she’ll hate to hear this, but if it wasn’t for Thatcher I don’t think acid house would have happened. Because the tories were so intent on massaging the unemployment figures, they had all these initiatives where they’d give you 45 quid a week to stay off the dole. For musicians that was perfect because you could squat in Hulme and get your 45 quid. It meant Shaun Ryder, or whoever, didn’t have to have a job so they could spend all day sleeping and smoking weed and then playing music in the evening. A lot of bands have a lot to thank Thatcher for even though neither side would probably like to admit it. 

Manchester was terribly grim. There was very little investment in the city, and Manchester was, pretty much all the way through the Thatcher years, a Labour council, so they were alway, always having to battle to get anything and being turned down for most of it. When I show people in America those Joy Division shots, they ask if it’s in Poland. They don’t think that’s how Britain looked.

For more information on Kevin’s work visit his website or follow him on Twitter. All photos are from Kevin's books, available for purchase here.

Kevin Cummins, self portrait.

Rob Pollard is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter @_robpollard

David Brent: Life on the Road
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Ricky Gervais thinks his latest brand of David Brent comedy is subversive and clever. It’s not

Unlike The OfficeDavid Brent: Life on the Road is lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

I love The Office. This is not a controversial statement. Who doesn’t love The Office? Just this morning, the series came second in a BBC poll of the greatest British comedies of the century. I loved The Office so much as a teenager that I watched every episode so many times I knew them by heart. I even knew parts of the DVD special features by heart. Still, now, if I want to cry with laughter I’ll watch Martin Freeman cracking up in bloopers. If I just want to cry I’ll watch the Christmas special.

It’s the toughest possible act to follow. Ricky Gervais has had to state over and over again that it would be crazy to try and recreate it at this point, and that the David Brent-starring works that have followed the series are not meant to be The Office. Still, the latest instalment, Gervais’s film David Brent: Life on the Road, begins in a (new) office, with the same mock-doc format as the television series. We see Brent making bad taste jokes with colleagues, telling the camera about his love for entertaining, embarrassing himself regularly. This is where the similarities end.

Perhaps deliberately, Life on the Road rejects every structural feature of The Office that made it such a celebrated programme. The Office stuck pretty rigidly to the documentary format, and used the constraints that format placed on the drama to its advantage (with scenes glimpsed through plastic blinds, or filmed from slightly too far away, feeding into the observational nature of the show). Life on the Road never bothers to commit either way, with cinematic shots and documentary style film-making meeting awkwardly in the middle alongside talking heads that would feel more at home in an overly earnest toothbrush advert than a tour doc.

The Office team knew that the best way to deepen our empathy with their characters was to hint at their emotions without ever fully giving them away. The most excruciating feelings in the show remained out of shot and unsaid, with glances across rooms (or the lack of them) becoming as dramatic as a high-octane argument in the rain. The romantic climax between Tim and Dawn in the second season comes when they disappear into a meeting room and take their microphones off – the audience never gets the satisfaction of hearing an explicit conversation about how they feel about each other.

Life on the Road takes the opposite tack – at every turn its characters tell the camera exactly how they feel, or how Brent feels, in detail. A receptionist we barely see interact with him at all wells up as she feels Brent is “bullied”, another female colleague notes that she can see the sadness behind his smiles, and Brent’s band repeatedly explain why he behaves in certain ways (He’s bad around women because he’s insecure! This man is strange because he’s desperate to be liked!) when they really don’t need explaining. It’s the ultimate example of telling instead of showing.

All the drama of the film unfolds this way. There is no real narrative arc to the story (the plot can be summed up as Brent goes on tour, it’s not that great, and he comes home), so instead, it uses talking heads to tell the audience how they should feel. Brent’s backing band are in effect a voice for the audience – they say how cringeworthy Brent is after he does something cringeworthy, they express pity for him in his more tragic moments.

“I didn’t quite know whether to laugh or cry,” one says to camera after Brent injures an audience member at a gig. “There’s been quite a few moments like that.” It’s a line that feels like it could have been written for the trailer – clearly, this is where the makers of this film position their ideal audience.

Of course, there comes a point where this film wants you to have more empathy for Brent. When this time comes, the script doesn’t bother to show any change in behaviour from him, or show him in a more redeeming light. Instead, it shrugs off the issue by getting a few band members and work colleagues to say that actually, they find him quite funny, and that really, he’s not so bad, he just wants to make people laugh.

As Brent reaches the end of his tour, he begins to feel that it’s all been a bit anti-climactic. (So, too, does the audience.) Already in debt, he wants to waste even more money on a snow machine, to provide his tour with “a magic moment”, but is persuaded against it. “I just wanted a magic moment,” he repeats to camera, just so we all get what is coming. In the very next scene, while on stage, he is surprised by falling snow – a bandmate has bought a snow machine for him, and thus the film’s magic moment arrives. But in actuality, it feels limp. You can’t create “a magic moment” by simply telling your audience that it is one. The Office would never speak in such cloying terms in the first place.

All these problems pale in comparison to the issue of Brent himself. The Office realised that the beating heart of the show was not David Brent, but the other office members and their relationships (basically, Tim and Dawn), Life on the Road doesn’t make even a half-hearted effort to engage with any peripheral characters, instead choosing Brent as its emotional centre. Trying to encourage an audience to empathise with such a dislikeable character is tricky territory, but not impossible to navigate. But Life on the Road barely even tries.

In The Office, Brent is a pretty horrible character offered occasional, heartfelt moments of redemption – when he stands up to a sexist, bullying colleague, or challenges his own patronising and cruel approach to dating after he meets a nice woman. In Life on the Road, Brent is self-absorbed, mean, sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, delusional and exploitative. There is nothing, except the tragedy of his life, that even begins to counterbalance that.

Let’s start with the sexism. Life on the Road has a few female characters who fall largely in to one of three categories: women who we like and see as good because they put up with all of Brent’s shit, and even like him for it, because he’s “funny”; women who don’t like him at all and are therefore condemned as sullen bitches with no sense of humour (men who don’t like Brent, in contrast, are allowed to exist on a spectrum of sensible to awful, heartless cunts); and fat women. And fat women, of course, have no worth, outside of their capacity to be a punchline. Brent’s only response to fat women is to shake his head in disbelief: he does it about a fat woman he accidentally shoots with a tshirt gun, a fat woman he tells us he used to date, and a fat woman he invites into his hotel room.

It’s easy here to claim, in Gervais’s defence, that the joke is actually about Brent’s own sexism, but when the punchline of a scene repeatedly involves zooming in on a fat woman as she eats chocolates and crisps (and focusing in on the wrappers again the next morning), it feels less and less defensible. The portrayal of women as either personality-less voids that take on the burden of Brent’s sexism by constantly making excuses for him, or as tight-lipped, po-faced and joyless (as a woman who doesn’t “get” the point of Brent in his current form, I’m confident that Gervais would see me as one of these), shifts the blame away from Brent and onto the women around him, perpetuating the idea that offence is simply taken, not a product of offensive acts.

Racism functions in a similar way. Brent uses the black people around him as props by which he can demonstrate his own progressiveness – bringing his friend Dom (Doc Brown) to work to “prove” that he is not politically incorrect after he is disciplined for a racist impression of an Asian stereotype (a Chinese man called Ho-Lee Fuk, a character my cinema screening found pretty funny). While Dom is one of the most developed characters (which isn’t saying much) in this film, it sometimes feels as though Gervais is doing the same thing – when Dom excuses Brent for his use of the n-word, the audience is invited to as well, which feels uncomfortable to me.

So, too, does ableism. In what I found to be the most egregiously offensive scene in the film, Brent sings a song called “Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds”. The song’s lyrics include references to those “mental in the head or mental in the legs”, “the ones with feeble minds”, “the awkward”, and reminds the listener to “understand you might have to feed the worst ones through a straw: it’s basically a head on a pillow”. Rarely do we hear disabled people dehumanised quite so violently as this. If the joke here is how deeply offensive Brent’s behaviours are, why is he never condemned for his actions? (All that happens at the end of this song are a few pained expressions from bandmates, and an awkward raised pint of semi-thanks from a wheelchair user in the audience.)

No, the joke here is simply the shock of the language, and when you say that shock is funny for shock’s sake, regardless of who you target, you encourage the grimmest forms of oppressive humour. Sadly, the belief that people with severe disabilities are essentially subhuman is far too common to be handled flippantly on screen – never mind perpetuated and left uncriticised. The bad taste of the whole thing rancours even further when you remember Gervais has a history of using ableist language casually. It’s not edgy. It’s lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

We also see Brent being occasionally homophobic, and generally inconsiderate towards all those around him. He’s a bad friend, buying people’s time rather than stopping and thinking about how his behaviours make people unhappy to be around him. When Dom, who has consistently and inexplicably supported Brent, starts to become successful, he offers him none of the same kindness and rejects him. He expects endless generosity from his fellow man, but sees no reason why anyone should receive the same from him.

Despite all his stunning flaws, we are meant to love him. “I don’t think there’s any real racism on David’s part,” a band member tells us. “He just doesn’t quite get it.” Clearly, we are meant to agree. On The One Show, Gervais confirmed that he does not see David Brent as genuinely bigoted.

“He’s accidentally offensive. He tries to please everyone, he’s trying to say the right thing, and because he’s not sure . . . It’s about that white, middle-class angst where he knows about political correctness and he doesn’t want to put his foot in it. And he’s not racist, and he’s not homophobic, and he’s not sexist, but he panics, and he digs himself into a hole.”

Let’s be clear, David Brent is all of those things. Life on the Road is not an interrogation of white, middle-class anxiety. It’s a portrayal of a racist, ableist, sexist person who we are encouraged to forgive because he has “good intentions”. I know a saying about good intentions.

When confronted about homophobic impressions, Brent responds, “I never actually specify whether he is a homosexual or not, so that’s in your mind.” Like Dapper Laughs, defences of Brent rest on the idea that if you find him offensive, the joke’s on you – that Brent as a character is actually mocking the Brents of real life. But in Life on the Road, it’s too unclear where the joke truly lies, and Brent is simply let off too easy. Personally, I wish I’d stuck to re-watching The Office.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.