SNAP HAPPY: Dennis Morris [PIC CREDIT: Pearl Morris]
A MASTERMIND behind a camera and an artist in every sense of the word, Dennis Morris uses the camera no differently to the way an artist uses a brush; creating and capturing iconic moments in the music industry.
A photography lover since the age of eight, Morris's career first kicked off in the ‘70s whilst bunking off school to wait for Bob Marley to arrive for his sound-check at the Speak Easy Club on London’s Margaret Street.
Marley, quite taken with the young teenager, who was waiting for him so he could take a few snaps for his portfolio, invited Morris to come along and take pictures of him for the remainder of the tour.
Running back to his home in Dalston, the east Londoner packed his bag and jumped in the reggae star’s transit van – Marley didn’t have a tour bus in those days.
Morris’ photographs of Marley and The Wailers became famous all over the world, appearing on the cover of Time Out and Melody Maker before the photographer had even turned 17 years old.
But touring with the king of reggae wasn’t as ‘rock and roll’ as it may sound.
“Most people must think I’m a multi-millionaire,” laughs Morris. “But in those early days, it was such a struggle. Money was never discussed. I had to self-finance; I had to buy my own film.”
Although it took a while for the money to start trickling in, touring with Marley is one of the photographers’ highlights in life, and what he has become known for.
“All those images of Bob, none were taken in a studio. They were all taken with the available light depending on where we were at the time. None of them were posed either. I never once told him to ‘look over there’ or ‘put your hands like this’.”
The photographer continues: “They’re all moments, incredible moments in time. People who look at my images of Bob say they have a feeling of being there. They say to me ‘he’s alive’, because there’s so much energy in them.
“Those images are recognised as the definitive of Bob Marley, and I’m so proud of that.”
Morris, who will be giving a talk at the V&A Museum this month as part of the exhibition, ‘Always Print the Myth: PR and the Modern Age’, is currently working on some projects in LA. He says he still feels so lucky that his work has taken him all around the world.
“I just wanted to take pictures and wanted to be a success at taking pictures,” says the artist, who went on to take iconic shots of the Sex Pistols and other top reggae artists.
“I never envisioned that it would take me to the places I’ve been. I’m not complaining about it in anyway shape of form, though. It’s been amazing.”
Morris was first introduced to photography at his church. His family came to England from Jamaica when he was four years old, and St Mark's Church in Hackney provided a religious and social nucleus for the family.
It was at church, where Morris was part of the choir, that he discovered his love for photography thanks to the church's benefactor, Donald Paterson, who had made his fortune in camera technology.
SMOKING HOT SHOT: Morris captured one of the most iconic images of Bob Marley [PIC CREDIT: Dennis Morris]
It was Paterson who organised and financed the St Mark's weekly camera club, where, at the age of nine, Morris discovered his vocation.
“The club was every Thursday. We’d meet at the vicarage and we’d take a film each.”
It was during these weekly adventures that Morris fell in love with the “magical” process.
“It was never a hobby for me. It was a life. Photography is the only thing I know. I’m very fortunate that I’ve been able to see the true process of photography – from loading the film and then developing the film and then printing them out. Once you go through that process, you realise how magical it all is.”
He adds: “Back in my day, you had to get it right. You just had to get it right. The generation now, some of them have never even seen film. They’ve never been part of that magical process. They take a picture, look at it, say ‘Oh it’s no good’, and delete it.
“I was nine when I first saw that magical process. And right then, I knew that was it. That would be my life.”
But not all of his peers were as impressed as he was.
JAMMING: Marley in action on stage [PIC CREDIT: Dennis Morris]
“To be honest with you, I was really the only one who took it seriously. The rest of them, it was just a day out. But I took it seriously. I was bullied in some ways because I was just interested in taking pictures. I wasn’t interested in football.”
The photographer dedicated his 2012 photo-book, Growing Up Black to Paterson, who he says was a very “giving man”.
"He's the reason I'm a photographer," says Morris. "He convinced my parents that I could make a career out of it even when the school was against it. More than that though, he opened my mind to the possibility that you could go beyond what was expected of you."
That confidence boost was definitely needed, as it seemed like nobody else really had faith in his aspirations.
Morris recalls one occasion, when at the age of 16, he told his school’s careers adviser that he wanted to be a photographer.
"The guy just looked at me like I was mad," he says. "Then he said: 'Be realistic. There's no such thing as a black photographer.'
“Those were his words and I've never forgotten them.
“I told him about [black American photographers] Gordon Parks and James Van Der Zee, but he just looked at me blankly and shook his head."
It wasn’t only his teachers that were doubtful, even his family was dubious at the beginning.
Accustomed to raising money for films and camera parts by taking photos of christenings and birthday parties, Morris was suddenly on to something; his hobby and all-consuming passion could be done for a living.
“I was known in the neighbourhood as very, very good, and very, very cheap,” Morris recalls. “So anyone who wanted pictures would come to me. I would do it in the front room of my house, put up a white sheet, borrow some lighting from the church photography club and that was my studio.”
Some of these photos, which were taken when Morris was between the ages of 10 and 12 years old, were even published in Growing Up Black.
“It’s difficult coming from a background like I had, with family wanting you to get a job as soon as possible so you can bring in some much-needed money for the family.
“The photography wasn’t bringing in any money in the early days, and I was always being reminded of that. My mum would say ‘your friends are doing this, and working there, what are you doing to help?’
“But I just persevered. Of course, when the money started rolling in, everyone started smiling.”
Morris adds: “The thing is, you have to have an inner strength to bypass the negativity. I just kept going. I had self-belief, and I was lucky to have someone like Donald to believe in me.”
Dennis Morris will give a talk at the V&A Museum, London SW7 on April 30, 2015 as part of the exhibition Always Print the Myth: PR and the Modern Age. For more information, visit: www.vam.ac.uk