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Examplar: Joy Division By Kevin Cummins

An exhibition of iconic portraits of the band taken during their tragic, short-lived career

Written by . Published on October 14th 2011.

Examplar: Joy Division By Kevin Cummins

AS monochromatic event as one could imagine, stark images upon a whitened wall, cold and unforgiving. Joy Division, a band with a literary reference, famed for a foresight and a spectacular brilliance, whose own crashing romance is now almost as dazzling and synonymous as their ground-breaking music. The band’s success and devastating sound owing just as much to Tony Wilson’s foresight, Martin Hannett’s production and Peter Saville’s understated artwork as to Kevin Cummins’ photography, which established the band as an entity, capturing and documenting the gushing well of creativity as it spewed forth rare and raw glimpses from the other side. Calling to mind a time and a place, an aesthetic and an attitude, forging on, exploring new avenues and the mutating of old ideas, Exemplar demonstrates how a band was transformed into a way of life.


The most avid of fans will be familiar with the photographs on display or at the very least one or two of the shots extracted from each of the sets, however the exhibition is not only for the initiated, relying on some unspoken understanding, here we see a vague narrative throughout the exhibition, the establishing of a scene and sound, the development of a band realising an artistic vision, here are the young men, walking towards a light that would forever remember them. What strikes as truly remarkable and what speaks volumes is how instantly noticeable Cummins work is and how many classic photographs are attributed to his name. His portfolio almost a greatest hits in its own right, to say there must have been something more in the air those fateful winter days is an understatement, the band and city, time an place seemingly inextricable from one another.


The winter’s plummeting temperature transforming the northern streets, painting them nearly Germanic when paired with the four men and their acute/affected fashion sense, a light flirtation with a national socialist aesthetic, perhaps, but in reality more along the lines of straight from work to: practice, show or interview. A proto/post punk, brutal architecture, Berlin’s beckoning call, the faded glamour and wild side of Lou Reed, the idiocy of Iggy Pop, the Autobahn and always crashing in the same car. Cummins cold black and white capturing the ethereal magic of the unforgiving Manchester concrete, equal part Ballard and Burroughs. From humble beginnings, we see the suspiciously striking (and perfect for that matter) Factory Club, the aggressive nihilism of Warsaw’s battle cry of three, five, zero, one, two, five, go! The motorway overpasses, the side streets, a bleak dystopian landscape, which inspired countless songs, lyrics and mental breakdowns, a case of life imitating art, the two informing each other. You can imagine all is not sunshine, lollipops and rainbows. With some bells and whistles, after thought, finishing touches in colour, thrown in for good measure, a shot of Curtis mid emanation during his convulsive and erratic shamans dance, the teardrop guitar made famous by the ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ music video, the handwritten lyrics to Closer’s ‘Isolation’ (a song which addresses and vents Curtis’ despair) and a blood splattered set list, suggesting art is war and that artists sometimes must suffer for their art.


Some images humbling the idea of Joy Division as the avant-garde post punk forbearers and when seeing them in a bands natural habitat, the rehearsal room, their situation and story now seems derived of human details and externalities, put on a pedestal, blown completely out of proportion, written about, documented in film, speculated by rock historians, clinical and sterile, so seeing something so silly and simple as a Coca-Cola can touch base and allows it to breath a more everyday air, all the doom and gloom dissipates under tomfoolery and the four’s comradery. But such is the focus on perpetuating and immortalising the cult of Ian Curtis as the conduit, the channel, the mage, the medium, the baby-faced seer with eyes that stare on and through the doors of perception with very little face time given to the other three individual members, one wonders should the exhibition be called Ian Curtis and the guys who went on to form New Order. Speculation, silliness, the band, the history, the story (or, drama for that matter) aside, put simply these are incredible photographs documenting and time and a place with a definite feeling worthy of attention. Composed, cropped and considered, portraying a city, a climate, a sound and four men who also happen to be important in rock and roll’s vocabulary, ingredients necessary to making these images so lasting, the story so unique, important, interesting and worth telling.

6 October – 11 December
Proud Galleries

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