Friday, 28 January 2011

Apps vs Skills - Kevin Cummins at Creative Networks Leeds

I went along to listen to rock photographer Kevin Cummins address an audience invited along by Creative Networks West Yorkshire at the Leeds College of Art last night. Most famous for his photographs of Manchester acts around the punk and post-punk eras, as well as for many years of cover-shots for the NME, Kevin kicked off the evening with a brand new 15 minute documentary.

Along with many of the iconic shots he is famous for, the film featured quite a number of additional stills I'd never seen along with some up-beat, up-to-date interviews from the likes of Paul Morley, Bernard Sumner and, touchingly, Natalie Curtis speaking to Kevin on the walkway across Princess Parkway in Hulme where he took perhaps his most famous shots of Joy Division during the bleak and snowy 'winter of discontent' - 1979.

After the film, Kevin gently rambled through a number of tall tales about the work he's done and the time he's spent with his subjects over the years. Emphasing the human and social elements of photography which happen before the camera comes out of the bag, Kevin also highlighted the forced economy which was imposed upon photographers in the pre-digital age, as they sought to 'edit in camera' to capture only the very best shots on their expensive 36-exposure rolls of 35mm film.

For all his fondness for film photography, Kevin acknowledged a love for digital photography but also bemoaned the constant difficulties in having to prove you own the copyright on an image that has been purloined from one place on the internet and used elsewhere without permission.

He also expressed some frustration at the cost-cutting approach of the media who are happy to fill their pages with 'citizen journalism', picking up 'user generated content' for free - both words and pictures. The Guardian was singled out as the worst offender in this regard, with The Independent running fairly closely behind...  Kevin half-jokingly begged the audience not to support this trend as it was 'taking the food out of his children's mouths'!

Kevin also highlighted a disregard for the skills and training required to become a professional photographer, when 'anyone can do it' using an iPhone!  

He recounted a conversation with a PR asking him which app he'd used to create a particular effect, when he'd actually crafted the image using a long lens and a short depth of field.  

I spoke at an event a couple of weeks ago about how apps like Instagram were having this affect of professional photographers who often see them as the 'Comic Sans of Photography' and whilst I think they're great for giving everybody the chance to create, I do feel Kevin's pain. I was going to ask his advice re my Instagram shot above, but thought it best not to.

Some very funny moments from Kevin's career involved all of the usual suspects, with the loudest laughs reserved for Mark E Smith, Morrissey and The Stones Roses. I don't know how often Kevin speaks about his work, but if you can, try and get to see him.  Alternatively, his documentary is well worth a look.

I'm a little ashamed to admit that this was my first Creative Networks event and I'm pleased to say it was well organised and well attended.  I'll be back.


  1. Interesting I remember being at a KC workshop at Counterimage in Manchester in 1985 or so. He was entertaining then too. It's a huge prob for 'proper' photographers coping with the dumbing down of the craft through digital. Composition is still king of course, but so many folks now can access photography via the web, that loads of people also have their heads well round that too. Folks who would never have gone to a photography exhibition and who would never have dreamed of being serious about photography. It's become incredibly democratised and I for one (with a whole massive portfolio of old b/w prints I lovingly dev-ed and printed in my cellar)hate it. Does this make me a proper photo-fascist, I wonder?