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Ian Curtis ©Kevin Cummins

Exemplar: Joy Division by Kevin Cummins

at Manchester Photographic Gallery, Tarrif Street, Manchester

Reviewed by Mark Iddon January


33 Years ago, on 06 January 1979, Kevin Cummins spent the day photographing the legendary Manchester Band Joy Division. Many pictures from that snowy day in Manchester feature in this current exhibition alongside photos taken of the band, its members and associated images over a 3 year period from one of their first gigs performing as Warsaw in May 1977 to the memorial stone of the singer, Ian Curtis following his untimely death in May 1980.


The exhibition includes around 45 black and white images, on three floors of the gallery, that capture a range of aspects of the band from the intensity of their performances, to relaxed and contemplative stills during rehearsals to the well documented Hulme bridge photo. There are also images of the Factory Club in Hulme and the Russell Club in Manchester where they played early gigs and of an anxious audience queuing outside The Electric Circus.


As well as the more iconic photographs of Ian where he looks a little moody and mysterious there is also the warm side where he shares a joke with Bernard Sumner, the Joy Division and New Order guitarist. Some images capture the slightly awkward robotic stage movements that were peculiar to Ian Curtis as he took on his stage persona and performed his work with total concentration sometimes in an almost trance like state.


Kevin Cummins studied photography in Salford and went on to become the chief photographer for the New Musical Express (NME) as well as make contributions to the major newspapers and had photographs exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery at the V&A.


Ian Curtis ©Kevin CumminsI was almost 13 when I read of Ian’s death and knew nothing of Joy Division but I was saddened and intrigued and later impressed by the song Love Will Tear Us Apart. The music of Joy Division has since accompanied me through much of my adult life. On entering the Manchester Photographic Gallery for this exhibition to the sounds of a live recording of the band from February 1980 (the Town Hall High Wycombe), I felt an excitement about being surrounded by these images.


The Gallery is in a quite recently built complex of studios in the heart of the creative Northern Quarter of Manchester. It is actually only minutes walk away from where a club called the Ranch was located which was where musicians and music lovers would socialise in 1976 during the rise of the punk era. Although Joy Division evaded being pigeon holed as punks it was at this time when the barriers came down between artist and audience as people realised that they could learn an instrument and get on stage and fulfil their musical destinies. It was bands such as Slaughter and The Dogs, Buzzcocks and The Sex Pistols, and venues such as The Electric Circus in Collyhurst which drew the young members of Joy Division together. Events such as the Sex Pistols' performance at the Lesser Free Trade Hall is well documented in I Swear I was There by Kevin Nolan, and the meeting of Ian Curtis and Pete Shelley recalled in Mick Middles' book From Joy Division to New Order where Ian remembers of Shelley that he just seemed so ordinary. It is the demystifying of the rock star at this time which gave rise to the self belief in these young musicians.


It is remarkable that the music of Joy Division should make such an impact and be held in such high esteem three decades later, when they only actually made 2 studio albums, ‘Unknown Pleasures’ 1979 and ‘Closer’ 1980. It is just that these two albums have such a strong sense of character and purpose and was so different to the music that had preceded Joy Division and arguably has not been achieved since. It was a fortunate meeting of minds that brought these guys together, that the distinct sound of Peter Hook's bass, Steve Morris’s drums and Bernard Sumner’s guitar resonated so perfectly with the lyrics and vocal delivery of Ian Curtis. It is well worth having a read of the lyrics of Joy Division which actually make for some carefully crafted and considered poetry which although often alluding to a sense of being trapped or danger is actually quite ambiguous and captures the type of anxiety that many people experience through life. In Joy Division we can celebrate the passion and energetic expression through music whilst rejecting the resignation to a self-imposed fatalism that took away such a creative force many years too soon.


Ian Curtis ©Kevin CumminsWe can be thankful to Kevin Cummins for photographing this chapter in music history, to remind us of the time when creating music was the prime objective without the superficial trappings and baggage that many musicians carry with them today.


The brochure which accompanies the exhibition contains quite a few complimentary quotes which acknowledge the poignancy of Cummins' work from such prominent people in the music industry such as John Peel, Johnny Marr, Noel Gallagher, Mani and Bernard Sumner. It is the quote by Ian Curtis’s daughter, Natalie which sums up the exhibition best for me. Natalie is a photographer in her own right and she writes that

‘The images contain an unexpected tenderness, the band captured on their own terms by someone who understood their world. For all that they reveal, the photographs are complicit in containing the mystery of Joy Division.'


For anyone who is interested in the recent history of Manchester, its music scene and those that have made a contribution to its legacy, it is as urgent to see this exhibition which is on until 26th February 2012 as it is to either dig out your Joy Division records or purchase them on CD if you don’t already have them in your record collection.


Exhibition on from 06 January – 26 February 2012 

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