Kevin Cummins
On Sometimes the Sky’s Too Bright
September 2011
Interview: Steve Bateman

Set to be released on Wednesday, November 9th 2011, the press release for Kevin Cummins’ MSP tome unveils, “AMUTi Editions are proud to present ‘Sometimes the Sky’s Too Bright’, a new limited edition photography book by Britain’s leading music photographer. Spanning the years 1991-1998, the book displays Kevin Cummins’ iconic shots of the Manic Street Preachers as they rose to become the most exciting band of their generation.

Cummins’ close association with the band over their career, including their first cover for NME, has provided many of the most enduring images of a group that has consistently redefined the nature of rock ‘n’ roll style. Encapsulating the unique nature of the Manic Street Preachers on and off stage, the book includes both famous and previously unpublished photographs. Named after the Dylan Thomas poem, ‘Sometimes the Sky’s Too Bright’ will be launched on the anniversary of the death of the Welsh poet. Housed in a custom clamshell box this lavishly produced and printed limited edition hardcover is designed by award winning design agency FUEL and is only available in two signed editions, 26 lettered copies containing an original photographic print signed by Kevin Cummins (£550) and 250 numbered copies (£200). A sure fire collectable of the future.

Kevin Cummins is widely regarded as one of the world’s finest music and portrait photographers. The burgeoning punk scene in Manchester dominated his early work and he quickly became one of the premier documentary photographers of the era. Kevin was instrumental in establishing City Life, Manchester’s ‘what’s on’ guide and was a founding contributor to The Face, where he won an award for Magazine Cover of the Year. He spent 10 years as the chief photographer for New Musical Express, the world’s biggest selling rock weekly. Kevin has contributed to many major UK publications, including: The Times, The Observer, The Guardian, Esquire, Maxim, Elle, Vogue, Mojo, FourFourTwo, Sleaze Nation and The Big Issue. In 1999 The National Portrait Gallery chose three of Kevin’s photographs for their Icons of Pop exhibition, including the NME gold Manics shot.”

In an archived interview for 3:AM Magazine, when discussing working with MSP, he elucidated, “My early photos of the Manic Street Preachers lying on gold sari cloth were inspired by Egon Schiele’s paintings of young women. The young Manics were perfect subjects for that combination of trash aesthetic and ambiguous eroticism. All this helps to aid the public’s perception of the artistes with whom I work. It can also act as another layer of mystery. After all, it’s my perception of their character that I’m imposing on my sitter. Maybe I’m guilty of looking for what isn’t there sometimes. Although I prefer to think I’m already drawing on what I can see.”

Always overjoyed and honoured to cover anything associated with the Manics, I caught up with Kevin over the telephone, on Friday, September 30, at 10.30am – a photographer whose work has long been a huge inspiration to me and who extols “the power of photography,” maintaining that it “is more powerful than the written word.” To find out more about the important relationship between music, style + image, and of course, his luxury MSP collector’s item, Sometimes the Sky’s Too Bright…

Lucy: Your band have been quite quiet for the last few months. Are you looking forward to playing gigs again?
Katie Jane Garside: I think I give very obtuse ans

1.Firstly, why did you decide to publish a strictly limited edition book of your Manic Street Preachers photographs now?
“I’ve been waiting for the right publisher to do it with really. I did a Joy Division one about 3 years or so ago, and we were going to put this out more-or-less straight afterwards, but then I had another book out, the Manchester book with Faber, so I just thought that it was too much to release at the same time. So, I’ve been waiting for a gap really to put it out… It’s more for my personal reasons really, rather than anything to do with the band, but I was speaking to Gillian at Hall or Nothing (long-term MSP Press Officer) and I told her that we were bringing it out and she said, ‘Oh, that’ll be great, because they’ll have their new Singles Collection out by then!’”

2.How did you choose which shots to include and how long was the selection process?
“I’ve photographed them quite a lot over their career, so it’s really difficult, because you keep changing your mind as well (laughing). The photographs are more-or-less chronological, but it’s tough, because you sit down with all of the images and you start chipping away at them. Then, when I’d got a collection of about 400 pictures, I scanned all of those in and then looked at them and decided to work out which pairs worked best next to each other. Then I gave the designers about 250 images for them to do the artwork.”

3.The band were famously excited to be photographed by you and as scholars of the music press, knew all of your previous work. But, can you remember your first impressions of meeting the Manics and were they comfortable being in front of the lens?
“The first time that I met them was in Paris, when I did a small piece for the NME’s monthly magazine, VOX. I think they played at La Locomotive the night before we did the pictures and I had to photograph them on Sunday morning quite early, because I had to go back to London, so they were pretty hungover! When you look at the pictures, James and Sean almost look like they’re about to go to sleep (laughing)! I felt at the time, although Nicky and Richey had a very definable image, Sean and James still hadn’t really worked out how they fitted in with those two. So, a few months later when I shot them for their first NME cover (May 1, 1991), we talked about it in the office, how we’d put Richey and Nicky on the cover rather than a full band shot.”

4.When shooting musicians, you’ve stated that “It’s always more interesting if it’s a collaborative process. I prefer working with visually creative people,” although that you’re “always aware” that your “responsibility is to create photographs that complement their sound and personalities.” So, did MSP have much involvement in the planning stage of each of your shoots?

“Well, not really in the planning stage (pausing), the thing is, in the past, you used to get a lot more time with bands and musicians than you do these days. I’ve been all over the world with them, so you used to get quite a lot of time before you had to shoot anyway and so there was time to discuss it. When they were having their first NME cover shoot, they had obviously discussed it together, because Richey and Nicky went out the night before and asked girls in this club they were in to give them love bites, so they would look really trashy the following day. So, I liked that and I liked the way they wanted to be involved, because quite often bands don’t really want any involvement, or they have ideas that you can’t possibly turn into a good photograph. With the Manics, they were interested, but they didn’t ever come to me and say, ‘This is what we’d like.’ So everything that I’ve shot, has been my idea and my way of working with them.”

5.You travelled with the group to Bangkok in April 1994, with Nicky once saying, “We’d just peaked with our look out there (in Thailand). Kevin should do a book just from that trip. Unfortunately he only took about 40 pictures – the lazy sod.” Can you tell us more about this ‘infamous’ trek, as well as anything about the shows themselves?
“Cheeky fucker. It was more like 400 shots – which is 300 more than I’d normally take on a session… When we did the NME cover shot though, it was so hot and the drains were quite pungent (laughing), that halfway through the session as we were shooting it, Nicky was looking greener and greener (laughing), until at one point, he just disappeared and went to throw-up! Then, he looked marginally better, although like he now had a horrible taste in his mouth (laughing). So, that was quite a difficult shot to do. I had the idea that I wanted to shoot them at night and we wanted to do some pictures around Patpong and so on, but it was quite difficult, because there were lots of teenagers hanging around who’d been to the gigs, who were really excited at the fact that the Manics were there. I managed to take Richey out on his own one night, just around the streets, but I never got a full band shot which is what I was looking for. Oddly, I went back to Thailand some years ago with Placebo and I did the shot of them that I’d originally wanted to do with the Manics (laughing). But, the whole trip was quite interesting, because they were the first band to play there I think and it was very different – it’s culturally very different. They had these huge murals painted with their album and their faces on, and the kids had to be really well-behaved at the gigs you know, almost like they were controlling them. It used to be similar in Japan, because when I went to Tokyo with Morrissey, he played at the Budokan and it’s a huge venue and the whole place was in pens – there were about 12 to 15 people in each one. So, it makes it very regimented. When the Manics started, all the kids at the front were really getting into it, but it felt like the security was probably a bit heavy as well.”
*I ask Kevin how Richey was coping at the time*
“Well, he quite often seemed fairly preoccupied, but we’d take him out and he’d enjoy himself for a while. Then, he’d wander off (pausing), the others hung around a lot more together and he’d kind of just occasionally disappear for a few hours, then he’d come back and he would seem fine. It’s tough really, because there are a lot of people who’ve died young and when you work closely with someone, it’s a terrible shock, obviously. But none of us thought, ‘Richey’s an accident waiting to happen,’ none of us thought that at all, we just thought he was like a lot of musicians, because he was quite wrapped-up in himself at the time.”

6.Do you have any cherished Manic Street Preachers sessions / looks?
“Well, I like all of the stuff that I did with them, because they’re one of my favourite bands and so I always loved working with them! You know, I never felt like it was a job, it was never a chore photographing them and every time I photographed them, their look was different! They were always open to suggestions as well and there’s a lovely shot – which again was part of an NME cover session – where I photographed Richey with a statue, which is a black and white photo that looks great! He was kind of clutching it and then he’d just drift off into his own world, and as I was photographing him in this courtyard in Wales – I think it was possibly a recording studio or a rehearsal space – but James and Nicky walked passed and Nicky shouted at him, ‘You’re such a whore Richey, you’ll do anything to get on the cover of the NME!’ They were always great to work with and I always wanted to shoot more with them really – there was never a moment where I would think, ‘I’m really glad that session’s over.’”

7.Of all the music paper headlines that accompanied your work, as well as the band’s own spray-painted shirt slogans – which placed further emphasis on their indignation, frustration, profundity, loneliness and strong-minded artistic expression – are there any that have always stayed with you?
“With headlines, I’d have to look at them all to try and remember what they are, because I don’t tend to look at them, though I make sure the pictures are used properly. However, I do remember the David Bowie one where he’s smoking on the cover and they put ‘Ciggy Stardust’ (laughing)! But, I can’t remember many coverlines. As for the Manics spray-painted shirt slogans, there’s several pieces like that in the book, and also, obviously for their first ever NME session, I wrote ‘Culture SLUT’ with lipstick on Nicky’s chest. We’re also using quotes by people the Manics often referenced in the book as well, so there’s quotes from Karl Marx and various others dotted throughout, which I think ties it in with their aesthetic quite well. Jon Savage is also writing an essay for the book, which is really nice of him, so you’ll be able contextualise slogans and iconography.”

8.Are studio portraits, live photographs and candid shots, equally important to you?

“I think so, and oddly, I did quite a lot of studio sessions with the band, whereas normally, I’d take more pictures on the road. So equally, there’s some very nice pictures backstage, like in Swansea and when they appeared on Top Of The Pops, and there’s also some pictures when they did an instore signing at Tower Records in LA. With a lot of bands, I’ve maybe done some very stylised sessions with them, but with the Manics, there’s a really good mixture of stuff – there’s pictures on a beach in Wales, there’s pictures in Thailand, there’s pictures of them in Hollywood and there’s loads of studio sessions. I think they’re equally important, because it just shows the progression of the band. They’re not like a lot of musicians who almost just look like an older version of themselves, they change all the time, so I always felt that the visuals were really important to the band. I was looking at the photographs with the Manics’ manager, Martin Hall, and he said, ‘Oh, there’s one of James with his blond hair! I’d forgotten about that.’ It’s important that there are all of these photographs of them, and I think they attract photographers really, because they are so visual!”
*I say that whenever you look at any photograph of MSP, you can always pinpoint exactly which album they were promoting*
“Yeah, definitely! Whereas with a lot of bands, for instance New Order, I can never work out which album the sessions were for. You know, the Manics have a very definite image, although weirdly, they change that a lot, but they do have a definite image and that is all based on (pausing), it’s everything really, it’s the sloganeering, the visuals and their use of iconography. So, I find them quite fascinating because of that! I think with some bands, photographs can define how people perceive the band, for instance with my Joy Division pictures, you look at those pictures and you know what that band are going to sound like. I think that’s really important and I think similarly with the Manics, because of the way they look, you do get an idea of what their sound is like.”

9.At the time, what cameras, lenses and films were you using?
“Everything that’s shot with them, is shot on film. So, all the stuff on tour would’ve been shot on Nikon F3’s and a lot of the studio stuff was shot using a Hasselblad. There are also a set of pictures that I did (for the Gold Against The Soul era) which are Polaroid transfers, which I shot on a Polaroid 5x4 camera. They’re lovely and you only get one shot at it really, to get it dead right. It’s quite a difficult process, because you shoot it on 5x4 Polaroid and then you have to soak the art paper with water and peel the Polaroid apart, put a heavy roller onto it and roll it onto the paper. You then leave that on the paper for maybe a minute, before peeling away the Polaroid so that it’s transferred onto the paper, rather than onto the glossy Polaroid paper. It’s a really nice process, although you have to get it right! But, I really love them and I feel that really worked for them – they were the only band that I could think of that that kind of thing would work with. Although the NME didn’t really like them, because they didn’t really understand how they could use them (laughing).”

10.Were the group keen to view / discuss prints with you, and did they ever request copies for their own archives?
“I can’t remember them ever requesting copies, but they do like them, because whenever they talk through their career in magazines, Nicky has said that the gold sari cloth session is his favourite picture ever! I think it’s an important shot for them anyway, because it was their first cover and it just went really well – it basically defined their image at that time you know?”

11.Your pictures are beautifully composed, frequently incorporating locations to breathtaking effect, but do you have any favourite Manics images, for either aesthetic or significant reasons?

“Yeah, I’ve got a lovely shot of Richey clutching this huge Snoopy dog that a fan gave to him in Thailand – he’s just clinging onto it, in the way that he then later clinged onto the statue. So, that’s a lovely picture and there’s also a really lovely picture of Nicky backstage in Swansea, with a cute necklace that somebody has given to him. But they’re a very strong looking group, so I’ve got lots of favourite images of them and there’s not a single picture in the book that I’m not happy with – I’m really proud of all the pictures that I’ve got!”

12.For you personally, what qualities should a classic photograph have?
“Well, there are lots of elements really, but I think a good portrait should tell you about the subject rather than the photographer, and I think some photographers tend to, or try to, put too much of themselves in a picture. I also think it’s important to build a relationship up with people you’re working with, so that when you are shooting them, they’re reacting to you rather than reacting to the camera. The camera can sometimes be your barrier, and sometimes – if you’ve got the luxury of it – when I go on the road with a band, maybe for the first few days I won’t take a picture, because I want them to get used to me being around. Then when you bring the camera out, they’re still responding to you. So, I think that’s really important! One responsibility I think, when you shoot musicians, is to accurately reflect what they’re about; for example, they’d be no point in me doing a shot of the Manics in front of a London Tube sign, because it wouldn’t suit their image and it wouldn’t suit what they were about. If you look at the gold sari cloth session, that very, very clearly defined what they were about at the time. I mean, if you were into glam and all that kind of stuff, you’d look at that cover and you would know you would like that band! You know, that’s what I think music photography should be about – you look at pictures and you’re intrigued to know what that band sound like.”

13.Are you happy to crop images or do you prefer to always print them full-frame?
“I can be really precious about pictures, because I do compose them in-camera, so that’s the way I want them to look. When I was shooting on Hasselblad – which is obviously a 6x6 square – the NME was 16x12, so a picture would have to be cropped to go on the cover. So, I would had to have been a bit over-precious to think that they should print a square picture on the cover everytime. And also, I’m shooting for a music paper, they’re not shot for a gallery wall, so it has to suit the medium really and certainly in those days, because it was printed on newspaper, there was a certain way of shooting that maybe would work on that. You know, I’d always print very hard for black and white, so that by the time it was printed on the page, the inks would soak in. You’ve got to shoot for the medium – always!”

14.Are there any shots of MSP by other photographers that you admire?

“I’m not a big fan of music photography, but with the Manics, maybe some of Mitch Ikeda’s – but he shoots millions (laughs heartily)! He photographs them all the time, whereas I’m much more sparing with mine, even with digital, I tend to shoot digital like I’m shooting on film. I don’t shoot thousands and thousands of pictures, but Mitch does, he never stops! He foresaw what social media was all going to be about (laughing), people documenting every second of their lives, before anyone else thought of doing it! So, I like his stuff just for the sheer volume of it. At the NME, we had a very specific idea of how certain bands should look and Melody Maker had their own idea as well, so they sometimes took them in a different direction to us. I like the way Tom Sheehan works and how he gets on with the bands and so on, but I’ve not seen a picture of the Manics – and I don’t mean to sound arrogant – where I’ve thought, ‘I wish I’d taken that.’ Because I’m happy with the stuff that I did.”

15.Of all your pictures, is there an image that you’ve found to be particularly popular amongst people?
“Well, it varies really and inevitably, people think I probably live in a house full of my own pictures, but the only picture that I have up in my house that I’ve taken, is the picture of Richey with all of the Marilyn Monroe prints over his body. I’ve got a really lovely print of that in a gold frame and it looks great!”
*I ask Kevin how long it took to apply all of the Marilyn Monroe stamps to Richey’s torso*
“About 2 hours (laughing)! I think a lot of people like that shot, but you know, if people like the band, then they’ve got their own favourites I guess.”

16.Do you have a favourite Manics era / any favourite songs, albums, artwork and videos?

“Not really, because I like the way they change, so there isn’t one era that defines them for me. What I found really interesting, because you can dip in-and-out of certain bands (pausing), I’m known for liking Manchester bands and I guess I do tend to still listen to a lot of the stuff that I grew-up with. But when I went to the Manics’ Roundhouse show a couple of years ago, I just thought it was great and I realised that I knew far more of their stuff than I thought I did. But I like the way that they have different songs and different periods, and if you buy an album, it’s not going to be like a New Order one, which might possibly sound very close to their previous album. They seem to work in a way that takes them in very different directions and that’s what I like about them! I find them quite challenging – and they’re not safe – because a lot of bands are very safe and I don’t think the Manics are.”

17.You welcomed MSP’s thirst for knowledge and adventure, but how would you sum up your time documenting the band – did you get to know them well / have lots of fond memories?
“Yeah, I think so, and I think we’re all fond of each other in various ways you know? I mean, when I tend to work closely with a lot of musicians, the reason I can have a long working-relationship with people I guess, is that there’s mutual respect. And also, unlike a lot of journalists, I don’t want to be everyone’s best mate. You have a good time when you’re away together, but then I don’t say to them, ‘Look, come round for dinner on Sunday.’ I keep my distance and I realise that it’s a professional relationship. I guess that’s why I’ve had a long working-relationship with certain bands, because I don’t impose on them and I don’t impose on them when they’re working either, I let them do their own thing. I mean, sometimes, you’re sailing a bit close to the wind when you’ve been away for 5 days and you’ve still not got a cover shot, you might have to drag them out and make them do something then (laughing)! But, you don’t have to force any of that lot to have their picture taken, they were always very keen to have their photographs taken.”
*I ask Kevin if he noticed any difference in MSP when they became a three-piece*
“No, not really. I mean, anybody who’s a fan of the band will know the difference there really. They were quite melancholic I think, for a couple of years and it was a terrible place to be in, to not know what had happened to Richey. You would go and see them live and it was like they were all grieving, but they didn’t know how to grieve. The fact that they would line-up onstage in exactly the same way and leave an empty space where Richey should be, I like that and I like how sensitive they all are, because they’re all terribly sensitive about lots of things. I do like that and I like the fact that they’re very comfortable with that – they’re the least macho band that I’ve ever worked with! The last session I did with them was in 1998 for Esquire… I can’t remember exactly what it was, but I got to a stage where I had to photograph a lot of other stuff. I stopped working for the NME because IPC wanted to introduce some ridiculous contract where they would own our work, and we wouldn’t have any access to it at all! Whereas previously, everything that I’d shot, was my copyright obviously, but they wanted to take that away form us. So, that’s when I stopped working for the NME, but I still shoot music for Japanese magazines and for occasional British magazines and so on. I don’t know really, I felt a bit burnt-out because I’d been shooting musicians for so long, that I wanted a change of scenery for a couple of years. But oddly, I’m currently shooting quite a lot of stuff with New Order at the moment, because they’ve just got back together without Peter Hook, so I’ve been going up to Manchester to do some things in the rehearsal rooms with them.”

18.Lastly, chips or cream buns?
*I mention that all of the Manics went for chips as well, to which Kevin laughs heartily! After our interview has finished, I then thank Kevin for his time and wish him Good Luck with his photography and the release of Sometimes the Sky’s Too Bright*
“Thank You very much!”

A very special thanks to Kevin, and to Zak @ AMUTi Editions, for all of their time and help. All photographs courtesy of and © Kevin Cummins.

“I loved the trash aesthetic of the band.
It was all very obvious: Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol
and Jayne Mansfield – tragic blondes.”
- Kevin Cummins, 2008

wers to questions...It's never about looking forward to it. Actually maybe I should change the
script, maybe we are looeir musicm the 3rd album?