Book Review: Manchester – Looking for the Light through the Pouring Rain

Kevin Cummins
(Faber & Faber) £30.00

Reviewed by Guy Sangster Adams


Beneath the title, Morrissey in silhouette standing on a ledge against a grey sky looks down on a view unseen, though in one’s mind’s eye one sees a Manchester skyline. Cummins’ photograph evokes Bruno Ganz’s Damiel, one of a group of trench coated angels who listen to the tortured thoughts of mortals and try to comfort them (which does sounds like an allusion to Joy Division and The Smiths…) in Wim Wenders’ 1987 film Wings of Desire. Shot by the Rochdale Canal in 1989, industrial architecture looms over Morrissey’s head and his shoulders are hunched as though he carries Manchester’s past, present, and future upon them; never to escape his oft repeated refrain from Suffer Little Children, the closing track from The Smiths’ debut album, “Oh Manchester, so much to answer for.”

If there is a charge to answer in being a key component in establishing and iconicising both the first wave of highly influential Mancunian bands from the mid 1970s into the mid 1980s and then from the late 1980s until the present day doing the same for the second wave (who had been inspired not only by the music of the first wave but also by his photographs of them) then Cummins must plead guilty.  He has been at the centre of the story since witnessing the two Sex Pistols gigs at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in 1976. Gigs whose audiences also included Howard Devoto, Pete Shelley, Steve Diggle, Ian Curtis, Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, Mark E. Smith, Morrissey, and gave rise not least to The Buzzcocks, Joy Division, The Fall, Magazine, New Order, Factory Records, and The Smiths, all of whom feature in this book. As the music and the drugs changed, Cummins stayed on it photographing The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, and Oasis, whilst also capturing the divergent splinter projects Electronic, Black Grape, and solo Morrissey.

The story that Cummins’ photographs document, along with essays by Paul Morley, Stuart Maconie, John Harris, and interviews with Johnny Marr, Peter Hook, and Mark E. Smith conducted by Gavin Wright, is as contradictory and contrary as the city and its citizens; elegiac and uproarious, as full of braggadocio as it is introspective, as given to high flown erudition as it is acerbic to perceived pretension, as serious as it is funny. Ian Curtis angular in performance, broods, and reflects in repose, but stays forever young; Shaun Ryder from clutching a giant E of the rooftop signage of the Hotel Subur Maritim in Sitges, Spain at the height of the Happy Mondays, seems to have aged 20 years photographed in a barber’s shop in Havana in 1995; The Stone Roses awash with paint as though brought in with the melting tide from John Squire’s Jackson Pollock-esque cover for their eponymous album; the Gallaghers never crack a smile; Morrissey stays handsome.

Ian Curtis, Joy Division, Futurama, Queen’s Hall, Leeds.  September 1979 © Kevin Cummins

Ian Curtis, Joy Division, Futurama, Queen’s Hall, Leeds. September 1979 © Kevin Cummins

Cummins’ work continues to inspire new generations; two cutting edge examples of whom are Darren Wall, whose Wallzo design studio designed the book, and Richard Milward, who wrote the Foreword. Wall spent his teenage years pouring over Peter Saville record sleeves, and the book has the uncluttered elegance of a Factory artefact, whilst the sky blue of the Manchester City FC home strip of the section separating pages and cover, both looks great and adds an extra layer of association. Whilst Milward captures the chord that Cummins has struck in so many, “For years now, Kevin’s photographs have watched over me and my pals, like debauched religious figures, inspiring us to get intoxicated, wear parkas, pick flowers, and listen to records. Their familiarity is blissful.”

Manchester during the period covered by the book has gone, for better or worse, from post-industrial, post-Blitz dereliction reenergised by Punk, into the international buzzword of Madchester, to regeneration into Manhattanchester. Much has been gained, much has been lost, much has stayed the same; the opening photograph in the book is of a mural painted for a 1977 Silver Jubilee party in a cobbled street of bricked up terraced houses, whilst the closing photograph is of a razor wire topped wall spray painted with a Union Jack slashed with the slogan: ‘There’s no future in England’s dreaming: John Lydon of I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here fame.” The latter is preceded by a photograph of Ian Curtis’s crave inscribed with his name, the date of his death, and “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, and is followed by the equally, achingly poignant, blank white page where Tony Wilson’s Afterword would have been, should have been. Whilst on the facing page the message he left for Cummins three days before he died: “Kevin, sweetheart.  Sorry I haven’t sent the piece to you yet. I’ve just had to go back into hospital. It’s all in my head though, darling. I’ll download it as soon as I come out.”

Gallagher brothers, Oasis Sly Street, East London 21 February 1994 © Kevin Cummins

Gallagher brothers, Oasis Sly Street, East London 21 February 1994 © Kevin Cummins

Much has been gained, much has been lost, but what remains is the spirit of Manchester. One of the last performance photographs is of Noel Gallagher alone, presciently as it would now seem, playing at Teenage Cancer Trust gig in Manchester in 2007, possibly playing The Smiths song that he covered that night, which perhaps acts as a far better response to the title and a refrain for Cummins’ portrait of the city and its people; through the pouring rain, There is a Light that Never Goes Out.

In short, Manchester: Looking for the Light through the Pouring Rain; the pleasure and the privilege is ours.


Kevin Cummins
Faber & Faber

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