Photographer Kevin Cummins's best shot

'It almost doesn't need the band. It would still be a Joy Division photograph without them'

Joy Division were relatively unknown when I did this NME shoot. It was 1979 and I was just starting out, too, so in a way we were experimenting with each other. It’s one of the first band shoots I did – and probably my best-known photograph.

I didn’t really like a lot of rock’n’roll imagery: I thought it was confrontational. What I was trying to do here was capture their sound. I felt that the space in the photograph was like the space in their music. I told Bernard Sumner this last year and he said: “We didn’t have any sparseness in our sound, we filled all the gaps.” But then they always did have a very different idea about how they sounded. Left to their own devices, they could have been Bon Jovi.

We nearly cancelled the shoot because of the weather. We ended up doing some pictures in the snow, but took more indoors. The original idea was to shoot the band from the road looking up at the bridge, so they would face south, as if they were looking out of Manchester and almost saying: “When we’re successful, we’ll be out of here.” But when I saw them on the brow of the bridge I thought it made a great architectural shot. It almost didn’t need the band in the picture, because it would have still been a Joy Division photograph.

I only had two rolls of film, as that was all I could afford, so I had to make every frame count. There were three takes of this setup: one upright and two horizontal. Every few minutes they were complaining about the cold.

It was a totally different city back then. It looks like eastern Europe. I’ve noticed that when students move to Manchester they have their picture taken on the bridge. It’s an honour that people feel the photograph defines the city and the band.

CV

Born: Manchester, 1953.

Studied: Salford college.

Influences: Diane Arbus, Bill Brandt, Jane Bown, August Sander.

Top tip: “It doesn’t matter what camera you use. The connection with your subject is what’s important.”

High point: “Spending a season with Manchester City for my book We’re Not Really Here, about their final season at Maine Road..”

Low point: “None, professionally. Setbacks make you more determined.”

Contributor

Interview by Sarah Phillips

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