A mastermind behind a camera and a living legend within the music industry, Dennis Morris is a name that resonates beyond barriers of time and genre. An artist in every sense of the word, Morris uses the camera no differently to the way an artist uses a brush, creating and capturing moments in the industry that speak beyond the subject itself and are threaded with messages of social movement and emotion. A photography enthusiast since the age of eight, Morris’s career first kicked off when he skipped school to wait outside Bob Marley’s concert venue in hopes of capturing a shot or two, and within hours he had hopped on the bus as the tour’s photographer. What came next was a ride through the music industry, captured and documented through Morris’s lens as the young photographer worked with everyone from Bob Marley to the Sex Pistols, and eventually extended his creative reach from the camera to official album artwork and more. Peep below for our conversation with the man himself.
How important is visual art to music, and vice versa?
Visual art to music is vital! During the days of vinyl, the record sleeve was an art form. Most sleeves were used as a way of explaining the content of the album – i.e. title of the album.It was vital because back in the days when you went to a record shop, as you went through the racks, the sleeve was what first attracted you to a band/musician if you had never heard of them.
Are the two essential to each other’s existence and how do (or don’t) they compliment each other?
The two are essential to each other and it is vital that they compliment each other, as the wrong image could give the wrong impression of the musical content.
You were only 11 years old when you began your career as a photographer, how essential has the music industry been in your career as a photographer and with this in mind, how do you create diversity within your work?
I have never seen myself as a music photographer. I am essentially an artist whose tool is the camera. My work in music is a small part but at the same time, due to the commercial success I have had, it has become a big part! in some ways overshadowing the bulk of my other work. The diversity within my work comes from the openness of my mind!
What advice would you have for photographers who wish to pursue a photography career in the music industry?
I would say to any photographer who would want to go into the music industry now: to find a band/artist who they feel has great potential and follow them and become part of their unit. Because if you are outside of a unit, it is very difficult to get access and the freedom to create great images. there is so much control these days which I feel is killing creativity.
You’ve worked with an array of artists, including Bob Marley and The Sex Pistols to name a few. Is there any one musician, or any one experience with a musician, that cast a lasting impression on you on a personal level?
Obviously Bob Marley! He had a profound influence on me in many ways. The most important was to instill in me a sense of being and self belief.
Tell us about working with Bob Marley, how did you first get connected and were you aware that your images would go down as iconic visuals in music history?
I was fortunate to meet Bob Marley at a very pivotal time in my life. I was in my last year at school and I knew I wanted to be a photographer, but I also knew the odds were against me. I read he was coming over to do his first tour of England. I decided not to go to school that day and went to the club he was due to play. I arrived in the afternoon and waited and waited. Eventually he and the other Wailers (Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer and the band) arrived. I walked up to Bob Marley and asked him if I could take his picture, he replied : “yeah Mon, com’in.” While they were doing their soundcheck, I was taking pictures and during breaks he would ask me what it was like to be a young black kid in England. During that time he told me about the tour, and asked me if I would like to come along. I replied: “Yes.” the next morning, I met them at the hotel and went on the road with them. I knew from my first contact with Bob that I had to be there! and my instinct was right. The rest is history!
One is never sure of anything! The one thing I was sure of, when meeting Bob, was that he was going to be a giant.
What would you say is the key factor that gave Bob Marley’s music a global reach?
Truth, truth, and more truth.
What is universal about his music and how did you approach your work with him?
Bob Marley music is universal as Bob Marley is a universal man, born from a white father and a black mother; love created him, love was in his songs, truth was in his songs. My approach to him photographically was in the same way; we had a very honest, open friendship. I never, at any time, asked him to pose for any of my images. Many people have said, when they look at my photos of Bob, they feel that he is still here. This came by the intimacy and trust we had.
Do you see any (other) contemporary artist that is doing a great job in fusing their music with visual art?
Frank Ocean. I think he is one of the most creative artists of the moment and will definitely go far. He has a great vision.
Have mobile applications, such as Instagram for example, assisted or ruined photography as an art form (and profession)?
Photography will never be ruined as an art form by the advancement in technology because it balls down to the fact, the camera is nothing but a tool and therefor, unless you possess, the eye (i.e. the third eye) you will never be able to create a work of art or capture the essence of a moment.
Could you share your thoughts on the internet and the way it presents both photography and music respectively?
The internet has widen the access to images, the same for music. As it is still in its infancy, there are many copyright issues which need to be addressed.
East London is known as the creative epicenter of the country for photography,arts and the like. Hailing from Dalston, what can you tell us about the changes/gentrification that have taken place?
The gentrification of the East End is a very English thing. In England, a place which was once deemed as squalid, the property developers using their magic wand have made it all very attractive on the surface.
The truth is, all the talents, from years ago came from the East End.
Have you always looked to artists and singer-songwriters as primary subject through your lens?
How did you earn the nickname Mad Dennis? What are the sort of habits/traits you haven’t been able to leave behind since entering your photography career at an early age?
I am still as crazy as ever, thank god! It is what drives me. The want for something new, new places, new faces, new experiences has always been my drive which I feel is evident in my photography.
Skinhead and ska culture (a blend of reggae and punk) united races via the unique growth of the genre and you were there to document with a camera. Did photography in any way help break down racial barriers?
Photography, art, music, fashion will always break down racial barriers because once you are part of these things, there is more than two colors.
- Brandon Shigeta/HYPETRAK