Visual Arts: The man who shot Bob Marley

The hair. That smile. Bob Marley is one of the great icons. But a new exhibition has captured the essence of the man.
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OFTEN IT'S only in retrospect that life becomes clear. Look back through the eye of a camera and, suddenly, gaunt cheeks, anxious frowns and dejected body language are all there to be read. When photographer Dennis Morris lined up his pictorial biography of Bob Marley, which ran from 1973 to the musician's death in 1981, he was struck by what the images revealed.

"I saw where it was all going wrong. I suddenly realised how he was slowly deteriorating... that he was dying." Morris was only 14 years old when the two first met. He had bunked off school to hover outside London's Speakeasy club, camera in hand, to snap Marley as he arrived for a sound check. That evening, after the show, he went home, packed a bag and joined the band on tour. "My age didn't mean anything to Marley because where he was coming from in Trench Town, kids of 10 had guns." The photographer and musician felt an immediate empathy: neither had grown up with their fathers, both were lucky enough to have mentors at a young age to encourage them in their respective passions, and both were outsiders: Morris was the kid at school who hated football and who, from the age of eight, would rather go off on his own to photograph the streets of Hackney; Marley was also a loner, a child of mixed parentage growing up in Trench Town. But, as Morris stresses, this was a man who "knew he was on a mission". He was out to break down barriers and confront intolerance through his actions and through his rebel music.

Morris's first photographs of Bob taken at the Speakeasy in 1973 are grainy and dimly lit - just one spot of light catches the instantly recognisable features. The expression on Marley's face is intense, such was his total immersion when on stage. "He could have been praying, he could have just got hit by a bullet, he could even been laughing," says Morris, describing his favourite image of this time.

"Seeing him live, he expressed himself in all those ways: in his face, his movements, his eyes, everything."

Other photographs in Morris's reportage-style collection capture Marley backstage, on the tour bus, relaxing in a nightclub and at home in Hope Road, Kingston, Jamaica. They are all intimate images but they focus on the public Bob Marley. There are no shots of him and his wife Rita, who sang backing vocals as part of the I Threes, or any of his 11 children, whom he had with eight different women.

One day Marley turned to Morris and said, "Yeah, let me show you how a man can be free." The camera clicked and Marley is frozen leaping around grinning, and shaking and pulling his dreads this way and that, all the while saying, "Bars cannot hold me, force cannot control me, I-man a rebel." And what if Bob Marley was in this gallery right now? Morris looks shocked by the idea, as if the room wouldn't be big enough to contain him.

"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." In several of the later photographs, Marley's open-toed sandals reveal a heavily bandaged toe, poignant in hindsight as it was this football injury which refused to heal and eventually led to his death from cancer.

"I think when he died, half of Jamaica suffered," says Morris. "He fed a lot of people, he supported a lot of people emotionally, financially. He put Jamaica on the map." Marley was like a priest, recalls Morris. People would go to him with their problems and he would give them an answer, and before he went on stage he was "almost like a shaman, drawing inspiration before they walk out to face the masses and give the message. Then he'd walk on stage and the place would light up." But the 1976 attempt on his life in the lead-up to the Jamaican elections, together with his illness, visibly affected him, and Morris's photographs of this time show him reflective and drawn-looking. But at the same time he was pleased that he had achieved his aim: he had given Rastas respectability and spread his message of freedom and tolerance.

"The other day I went to Dalston to get my hair cut," says Morris, "and my hairdresser said: `I know Bob Marley. I remember him well. I remember in Jamaica we used to see him playing on the street with his guitar and we used to laugh and say "Look at the old fool. The fool thinks he going to be a star". Only Bob Marley knew Bob Marley was going to be a star.'

`Bob Marley, A Rebel Life', presented by Epson and Proud Galleries, 5 Buckingham Street, London WC2 (0171-839 4942), to 29 April. The accompanying book `Bob Marley, A Rebel Life' is published by Plexus, pounds 14.99