Rock snapper Kevin Cummins: ‘I still leave space for the NME logo in the corner’

“All I ever wanted to do was work for NME,” recalls Kevin Cummins. “That was my dream.” It’s a dream that certainly came true. He worked with the music publication for decades, including 10 years as chief photographer, shooting more than 250 covers for the music title.

His father and grandfather were both keen amateur photographers. “As a kid I used to spend hours in the darkroom,” he remembers. He went on to study photography in Salford and as a student, his first proper professional photo was of David Bowie performing live in 1973.

Despite being “cripplingly shy” and more comfortable behind a camera, Cummins, along with music journalist Paul Morley, went on a charm offensive to convince NME that Manchester needed to be celebrated. “We would make stuff up and bombard the music papers,” he recalls.

Their zeal was effective, and they were commissioned to cover the burgeoning local scene and bands such as Joy Division. Cummins would go on to take some of the group’s most celebrated images. “It sounds arrogant but Paul and I put Manchester on the map,” he says. “We were really able to push all our own bands hugely.”

Cummins moved to London in 1987 but retained a strong link with Manchester, capturing the city’s music from its post-punk years through to acid house, baggy and Britpop, shooting everything from Madonna at the Haçienda to Oasis at Maine Road.

One band he retained close relations with were the Fall, who are the subject of new book Telling Stories, featuring Cummins’ photos of the band from 1977 up to just four years before the death of their frontman Mark E Smith.

Despite Smith being a notably unpredictable and often cantankerous and irascible character – “A diet of bitter and speed doesn’t really help you to be fully formed,” notes Cummins – putting together the book proved poignant. “Going through old photos is like reading old diaries,” he says. “It’s sentimental. With Mark, I truly realised the longevity of our relationship when I pulled everything together. From those early pictures of him as a fresh-faced, skinny young lad to at the end with his skin deteriorating.”

Even though he has taken photographs for countless publications all over the world, and published several books, Cummins can’t quite shake off his NME years. “I still leave space for the NME logo in the top left corner,” he laughs, recalling a recent shoot with Noel Gallagher. “It’s automatic.”

Despite having his work featured in many galleries, and London’s V&A even purchasing his first ever Bowie shot, his approach was always fan-focused. “I loved the idea that people took my pictures out of NME and put them on their walls,” he says. “It was as exciting having your picture on someone’s bedroom wall as having one in the National Portrait Gallery. Because that’s people actively tearing it out and putting it there. You know you’re doing your job well when people are doing that.”

Telling Stories: Photographs of the Fall by Kevin Cummins is out now, published by Mitchell Beazley.

Northern exposure: five of the best by 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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”