Kevin Cummins and The Smiths: These charming men, captured on film

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As an exhibition of his photographs of The Smiths and Morrissey opens, rock snapper Kevin Cummins tells Elisa Bray no act ever fascinated him more

One tattoo, on the nape of a woman's neck, reads “There is a light that never goes out”. Another, on a man's biceps, reads “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want”. One fan has the words “still ill” emblazoned across a broken heart, tattooed when his girlfriend left him. Kevin Cummins, who, in his 10-year tenure as NME's chief photographer and beyond has snapped David Bowie, Mick Jagger and Ian Curtis, is displaying these fan photographs in his new exhibition dedicated to The Smiths and Morrissey.

“It's the ultimate sacrifice to have lyrics tattooed onto your skin – and I found that more prevalent amongst Smiths and Morrissey fans than anybody,” says Cummins. “I wanted to link Morrissey and the fans, because he has such devoted fans. Morrissey doesn't even have a tattoo himself, so it's interesting.”

The best are the tattoos with the most obscure lyrics. Among the collection is a photo of two girls, one with “Crash into My Arms” from the Morrissey song “Jack the Ripper” tattooed onto her arms, and the other with “Don't Lose Faith” from “I Know It's Gonna Happen Someday”.

“The relationship with the fans is very close; you go to gigs now and you'll see the same people; they travel all around the world, like football fans with their team. And the make up of the audience is quite interesting – it's very mixed. Most of the people I've photographed with tattoos are under 40. They are so devoted to The Smiths.”

He recalls an incident when a fan helped Morrissey out of a sticky situation after a photo shoot for the NME in Tokyo's red light district, where the star was mobbed. “After about five minutes, loads of kids came in, and we panicked... To make an escape, we got into a cab – and that's when we realised that neither of us had the hotel's name. We had to ask one of the kids where we were staying – of course they knew – and then one of them got in the front of the car and told the driver where to take us. We were saved by a fan.”

Many of the shots in the exhibition have never been seen in public, and many more not since they were printed in the NME 25 years ago. Included is the photograph Cummins took for The Smiths' very first NME cover – except that the photo never made it to the cover. At the last minute, the features editor decided that The Smiths were never going to be big enough, and he put Big Country on the front instead. It's ironic when you think that they've probably been on the cover more than any other band since.

That photograph went on to grace the covers of five or six books. It shows the band lying in the grass at a time when the trend was to show bands with urban, industrial Manchester as a backdrop. “The photographs define how music fans perceive a new band. Sometimes they see a photograph before they've heard any of their music,” says Cummins. “I didn't feel an urban setting would suit them, so we went to the outskirts of Manchester, to the park, to give them a softer feel. I thought that was essential.”

It was a hit with Morrissey, at least, who requested a copy of the image as large as possible. “He saw the contact shoot and sent me a postcard saying, 'I need that photograph now' – and I sent him a 10x8 of it. He asked me how big I could print it – he wanted it 5ft high. We had visions of him in a room with huge photographs of himself on the wall. I have photographed him at home and he had similar-sized shots of the New York Dolls, so maybe it was to match those.”

Of all the stars that Cummins has photographed, Morrissey still stands out as his favourite subject. “I'd always pick Morrissey. He's the best person I've ever worked with; he's got an aura about him and I love the fact that so many people are so devoted to him still. There are very few real stars these days, certainly in rock'n'roll.

“He's brilliant to work with because he has lots of ideas that won't always necessarily work; he's not like a lot of musicians who maybe give you 10 or 15 minutes of their time and then they get bored and wander off. He's quite happy to work at it all day until he gets something he's happy with.”

The image of Morrissey standing in front of his handwritten sign “penis mightier than the sword” displays his love of wordplay. It was taken half an hour before he went on stage in Tokyo – even then he was still thinking about what would make a good picture.

No exhibition about The Smiths would be complete without a flavour of the famous souring of the relationship between Morrissey and Johnny Marr, which led to the band's untimely demise. Among Cummins' pictures is one of Morrissey with a T-shirt from a fan with a picture of Oscar Wilde and the words “Smiths is dead”. It was Morrissey's answer to a picture of Marr – a year earlier Cummins had photographed the guitarist with a hand-drawn tattoo on his arm saying “ex Smith 1982 to 86”.

That Cummins is still providing photography for Morrissey's artwork and is still in touch with the musician is down to staying out of the arguments. “I was going from Johnny Marr's world to Morrissey's world and trying to stay out of whatever argument they were having at the time. The only way you have any longevity with musicians is by staying out of their politics. Around April/May 1991, they'd ask me how the one other was. I'd just say: 'great!'”

Manchester – So Much to Answer For: A Retrospective of The Smiths and Morrissey by Kevin Cummins, Manchester Photographic Gallery (0161 236 7224) to 8 April

This article appears in tomorrow's print edition of Radar magazine

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