Morris is a master of the old school. His photos are not sterilised studio shots, but privileged windows into the private worlds of his subjects and testament to the trust he earned from behind a lens. Always affording an insider’s perspective, Growing Up Black consists of pictures from his youth, documenting the raw and the real, with the natural clarity of one who grew up on those same streets. Talking to Dennis made us feel nostalgic for good times we were too young to witness, and this joie de vivre runs throughout his work.
Your success as a music photographer has often been attributed to the affinity between you and your subjects - Bob Marley befriended you and the The Sex Pistols trusted you. What was it in the young Dennis Morris that encouraged those famous figures to drop their guard, and would you agree that this informal approach is pivotal to your work?
Both Bob Marley and the members of the Sex Pistols like myself were searching; I was looking to establish myself as a photographer but more than just a photographer. I had big plans and so did Bob Marley. Bob didn't just want his music to reach a West Indian audience, he wanted to be universal. Likewise, John Lydon and the other members of the Sex Pistols wanted to break out of the humdrum existence which was prevalent at that time in the 70s. So meeting them, we all knew on first sight that we were like-minded. We all wanted more than what was offered to us at the time.
From a young age you have taken photos of various music scenes, very much from the inside and you are a musician yourself. What is it about the aesthetic that surrounds music, and specifically reggae that keeps you coming back for more?
The music scene especially at that period when I started was open to fresh ideas and new talent; it was brimming with possibilities. Reggae and punk is the music of rebellion and I have always felt a lyrical connection to this voice of anger, freedom and protest. Every now and again there are a crop of bands who take up the mantle of Punk and Reggae, hence I get the urge to rush back into it.
Many of the pictures you took of Marley have become iconic, still adorning teenage bedrooms now. What do you feel makes those images and the figure of Bob Marley so culturally resonant for so many?
I think through my closeness to Bob, the images I have captured make the viewer feel that they are part of the situation with him. None of the pictures were taken in a photo studio, they were all taken on location (in London wherever he was staying, in Jamaica or on tour). Reportage is the best term for the technique I used. People continue to put the timeless image of Bob on their university halls walls because it stands for something more than just the man and therefore shows what the owner of that image stands for - the spirit of protest I mentioned earlier.
Tell me about your preference for black and white photography?
The world is Black and White. Colour is a gloss.
Good answer! The series Dreamtime: An Aboriginal Experience may seem like a big departure from your other work. However the Elders and celebrations you capture perhaps have more in common with the punk experience than is immediately obvious. What similarities and discrepancies do you feel distinguish the photos taken in Mowanjum from the rest of your repertoire?
There are many similarities between the Mowanjum photos and my music images and this stems from the technique used (ie: reportage). No posing, no assistant, no artificial lights. Reportage is the study of one's subject to get the subject to reveal the inner self - the real self.
Funnily enough when I first tried to set up communication with the Mowanjum elders they were not interested in the project at all. I eventually sent them a book I had published with photos of Marley and they instantly agreed - saying if they’d known I knew him, they would have agreed in the first place. They revere him like a God, and feel a real spiritual connection with his musical tone and lyrics.
Let's talk about your latest publication Growing Up Black. The collection documents everyday life for the black community of seventies Hackney. Tell me about your experience of growing up in this environment.
My experience of growing up in Hackney comprised of both highs and many lows. The highs included the sound systems parties which were held in house basements and in tiny clubs. At these parties everyone dressed to impress in mohair and two tone suits and there was a real feeling of aspiration towards the future. However the lows came in the form of racial attacks and many running battles.
Though these lows you mention sound pretty tough the photos challenge preconceptions in that they exude a great joie de vivre, vitality and optimism. Is this something you deliberately set out to communicate?
It was not something I set out to communicate, it's just the way it was! The subjects in the photos had a lot of pride and optimism, hence the title Dignity in Poverty.
The East End of London has changed dramatically since those photos were taken. What do you think of the influx of fashion students, hipsters and media types and the impact it has had on the area?
The East End of London always had talent. David Bailey is from the East End and many clothes factories were based there as well as many of the designers. Actors such as Michael Caine originate from the East End. The only difference now is, it has become fashionable to be from the East End, even if you don't actually originate from there! I suppose people gravitate there to get inspiration from its history of creativity. There is something in the air they want to soak up.
Similarly the music industry has undergone enormous change since your days at Island Records. How does the process and experience of your work photographing music artists now, differ from the start of your career?
The difference between the bands of today and the bands from the 70s all comes down to money. Now bands are aware of the enormous financial gain to be made and won't risk upsetting the status quo. Music is a career move - the music ‘industry’ as they call it now. It never used to be an industry, everything just fell into place the way we looked and dressed for example - there were no stylists!
You heard kids! Growing Up Black is published by and available from Autograph ABP.