Dennis Morris Interview: The Legendary Photographer Discusses His New Bob Marley Exhibit and Shepard Fairey Collaboration
Dennis Morris’ iconic career in photography began while ditching class for the chance to meet the great Bob Marley at the Speak Easy Club in London. Taken aback by the young photographer’s passion, Marley invited him to jump on his bus and take pictures for their upcoming tour. Morris would go on to become one of the most important and influential music photographers in history. Throughout his career, he collaborated with many artists that shared his passion for social justice, such as Bob Marley and the Sex Pistols. In his work with Marley, Morris captured the legendary essence that still empowers and fascinates us to this day; “He wasn’t a very tall man, but he was a giant of a man. He had immense presence, and the beauty was that it spread on to you. You had to really get your act together.”
The Known Gallery in Los Angeles will be showcasing Morris’ work with Bob Marley in their new exhibition, “Bob Marley: Giant.” As a special treat for LA fans, Morris collaborated on a new screen print with Shepard Fairey that will be available at the gallery this Saturday.
1. How did you come to meet Shepard Fairey?
Shepard and I were admirers of each others work for years, but had never met. A mutual friend brought us together last year. On that first meeting, he told me that his first ever screen print was of a Sid Vicious shot of mine. From that initial meeting, a whole set of ideas were born.
2. Do you often collaborate with other artists?
I have never collaborated with any other artist. Shepard is the first and will probably be the only! I don’t like doing group photography shows as I feel I don’t get the space to showcase my work as it should.
3. Can you provide us with some insight into the collaboration process that you and Shepard went through on this print?
The process with Shepard and I in producing this or any other work, is based on magic and respect of each others work and technique. For example, we meet to discuss the image, the ideas, the vibe of the piece, and the rest is magic! The title of the work either comes first or at the end. We are basically in tune with each other.
4. Many art collectors, such as myself, are unfamiliar with photography prints. Can you explain the process you went through in creating these iconic prints?
Photography is an art form. The camera is just a tool; as the painter uses a brush, the sculptor a chisel…I use the camera. The negative is like the sketch from the negative (i.e. sketch) you produce the painting (i.e. print). The print can be in many forms, like a painting (acrylic, watercolour…); so the photo can be fiber base/bromide, which is a conventional process, or a digital print. Digital printing is in no way inferior to any other form. Where artists like Shepard use the screen printing process to produce some of his work, digital printing is the photographic example of that.
5. Many of my classmates during college decorated their walls with your photograph of Bob smoking that huge joint. Was the decision to depict Bob sparking up an artistic one on your part, or did you capture this image “organically.” (Pun intended)
It is said, this image is how you define yourself, it’s either the image of Che or this image of Bob. The image came about, like all my images of Bob, on a one to one. None of my images of him were ever taken in a photo studio; they were all taken with available light. It was in Bournemouth (UK) on his first tour; we were talking and he said: “let me show you how to smoke a spliff Dennis!”
Three puffs later, an iconic image was born. What’s amazing, is the smoke resulting from him taking such a huge puff on the spliff created this magical aura.
6. What was it like to have experienced a tour with the iconic Bob Marley? Do you have any outlandish or heartwarming stories you can share about the experience?
I did many tours with Bob, the first tour in 1974 was probably for me the most memorable because it was the beginning for both of us.
This was when, he crafted what was to become the power of Bob Marley on stage. I remember on this tour, he was playing venues some with the capacity of 1,000 to 2,000 people but sometimes only 200 people came. But he alway walked out on stage as if it was sold out, and he performed as if it was sold out, because he knew that 200 people in the audience would go away and spread the word; so the 200 would become 400, 400 would become 800…the next time he would play that venue. And so it came to pass.
He saw himself as a messenger. There was one hilarious moment on this tour, which brought the tour to a premature end. One morning, they woke up and decided they were going to play football; looking through the window they saw it was snowing. “What’s that?” they asked me in shock; “Snow” I said; “What do you mean snow?”, you know “Snow!” Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer declared it was a sign from Jah that they should leave Babylon. After long discussions, they did leave and the tour ended abruptly. This was the last time Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer played with Bob, it was the end of the Wailers as we know it!
7. Your work often features provocative and rebellious musicians such Bob Marley and the Sex Pistols. Do you share the same passion for social justice as the subject of your lens?
I never work with an artist unless I share the same passion!
8. After your successful Sex Pistols show and the soon to be successful Marley show, what can LA fans expect from you in the future?
My work isn’t just photography, I also do music. I was in a band called Basement 5, signed to Island Records. We did two albums. I was the vocalist. We have been named by bands such as Bad Brains, Living Colour, and Fishbone as their main influence. I plan to do more exhibits of my music photography and also my social photography (such as my Growing Up Black collection and Southall Home from Home collection, represented in the Victoria & Albert Museum and English Heritage). I also plan to do more music – watch this space!
I would like to thank Mr. Morris again for taking the time to provide us with some insight into his work. “Bob Marley: Giant” will be on display March 29th – April 12th at Known Gallery in Los Angeles.