On the way to St Leonards to see this exhibition I was listening, as is my want, to Radio 3. They were playing a piece by Charles Ives that seemed to be a mass of confusion but out of which came a pure sound around a single vision. And then I thought: I bet I could shoehorn my thinking about that into my thinking about Kevin Cummins.
Cummins is the first photographer whose name I deliberately looked up in the pre-internet days when such things were far from straightforward. I was a tedious introvert teenager in the early 90s reading the NME and it seemed that whenever I came across a photograph that actually did more than just show a pic of a band next to some words written about them it would be by Kevin Cummins. His work always managed to bring together the charisma of the performers but also their vulnerability and interest – and to do so in poses and/or settings that seemed so straightforward but which it was obvious from the rest of the magazine few others were able to do. And he did so, at that time, in a signature style of beautiful, crisp, black and white. Out of the confusion and mayhem that is (was) teenage music he drew out the important bits and put them in front of us.
Joy Division, and then New Order, were where he made his name and this two-room exhibition has a nice overview of those. Time has not wearied them nor has the fact that every two-bit landfill-indie group to emerge from England’s public schools in the intervening decades has tried to copy them. We also get the Manics in their rough glamour early days and turning from that you get to see Michael Stipe staring back at you. It’s as if someone has gone, “Jon, which of your heroes would you like to see on a wall in your hometown?”
The Stipe shot (there are two but this is the one where he is holding a bottle) is interesting because as an REM devotee of many years standing I have seen and over-studied a lot of photos of Michael Stipe. In all of them before today I would have said that even as subject Stipe was in control – his arts school grounding and passion for the visual making sure that even if he didn’t know when the shutter would be fired he knew how the frame would look. This one? Not so much. This is a Kevin Cummins shot and Stipe is most definitely the viewed not the controller. But, maybe I’m overthinking again. It can also just be a cracking shot of an intriguing and thoughtful man taken by one of our great photographers.
Despite this exhibition being somewhat frozen in time Cummins has continued to work and if you’re on Twitter he’s worth following for two reasons: firstly, he has a habit of showing off images from his back catalogue in numbers dependent on how many goals Manchester City score and, secondly, he is quite wonderfully grumpy a lot of the time. I like my artists grumpy.
So, in summary, if you like this sort of thing, find a way of going. Your reward will be two rooms of mostly monochrome splendour. The confusion and magnificence of music has rarely been so well visually distilled into a pure sound around a single vision.