Keith Morris

Sixties and Seventies rock photographer turned technical diving instructor
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The Independent Online

He was born in Wandsworth, south-west London, in 1938, the son of a promising footballer whose professional ambitions were thwarted by the Second World War. Determined to make the most of his own athletic prowess, Keith pushed himself hard at school sports (he was athletics captain of Farnham Grammar School in Surrey) and, aged 17, was ranked second in Britain's youth section for the 1,500m race.

After a spell of travelling, he returned to study photography at Guildford Arts School. A glamorous apprenticeship ensued in which he worked for several fashionable photographers, notably David Bailey. He continued his induction into the 1960s underground by working for the irreverent magazine Oz, but it was his photographs of rock musicians that really made his name.

Keith Morris was responsible for several iconic images of Marc Bolan, including the photograph in which the T-Rex star sat cross-legged with a Flying V guitar poking up suggestively from his lap. The two became close friends when Bolan moved into a house in Little Venice and found Morris already living on the other side of the canal. Morris's famous image of Bolan sitting behind the wheel of a Cadillac took on an eerie resonance after the singer died in a car accident in Putney.

Along the way, Morris photographed the key musical figures of the age, including Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Costello and even Fred Astaire. He was known in the music industry as the only professional to have photographed the cult singer/songwriter Nick Drake before his premature death in 1974. By the mid-1980s Morris had gravitated away from rock photography, though even recently he was – in his own words – "getting dragged back" by favoured clients and a few young bands who were in awe of his reputation. An exhibition of his Nick Drake photographs ran last year at Redferns Music Picture Gallery in west London.

Morris had started scuba diving back in the 1960s, using borrowed equipment. He trained formally with the British Sub-Aqua Club (BSAC) and quickly found himself at the forefront of the sport. Super-fit and determined to push the sport's boundaries, he specialised in diving in violent tidal systems where planning, experience and physical strength were crucial. He attained the BSAC's highest qualification of national instructor, and won a coveted award – the Wilkinson Sword – for his outstanding performance in the exam. He hung the trophy in his photographic studio and visiting musicians would ask what it was. "When I told them, they didn't seem to be all that impressed," he said years later.

He developed an obsession with Corryvreckan, the whirlpool off Jura in the Hebrides. Over the course of more than 30 dives, he found that the whirlpool was created by fast tides running over a deep pinnacle. "It's the most amazing place," he told Dive magazine last year:

There is this eerie growling sound created by water flowing through caves in the pinnacle. It makes for a spooky dive, especially with local stories about the Cailleach Uragaig, a Celtic "hag of the deep" who lives at the bottom of the whirlpool.

Morris assumed a near-religious devotion to the Corryvreckan pinnacle and its wildlife, forbidding his diving charges from removing lobsters from the area.

In the early 1990s, he was lured to America by stories of divers experimenting with gas mixes that reduced the oxygen and nitrogen percentages present in normal air, adding other inert gases such as helium to make diving safer at depths below the normal recreational limits. Under normal circumstances, air becomes toxic at 65 metres, but the revolutionary mix of three gases (which came to be known as trimix) allowed adventurous souls such as Morris to explore much deeper. He was one of Britain's first trimix divers, and became a standard-bearer for the advanced scuba techniques known collectively as "technical diving". Britain today has a thriving community of technical divers, many of whom were taught by Morris.

In common with some of his favourite musicians, Morris was prone to bouts of depression. It stemmed from the death of his 15-year-old son, Lee, in 1991. Following his father, Lee had qualified as a diver and was training in an inland lake when he got into difficulties and drowned. Morris seldom talked of the loss, but decided to continue diving despite the periods of depression he suffered for years afterwards. One of his favourite songs was Nick Drake's "Black Dog", which addressed the singer's own dark moods.

He worked as an instructor trainer for the élite diving agency Technical Divers International (TDI) and led several expeditions in which he located historic shipwrecks. In 2002, one of his teams located and dived the wreck of HMS Limbourne, a British Hunt-class destroyer sunk during the disastrous Operation Tunnel in the Second World War. He said at the time,

When I finally saw the remains of the wreck, it was so obviously the Limbourne that we didn't need to find anything else to make the identification – but we found the bell anyway. The year before, we found the Charybdis, which went down during the same engagement in Operation Tunnel. It was a typical navy cock-up – the Charybdis was going after a decoy and got picked off by an S-boat.

Morris threw himself into his interests so enthusiastically that success was inevitable. "I've always been freelance and I've never had a job,'' he said. "I've always thought that you should do something that you enjoy doing, then work out a way to make a living doing it."

He successfully completed the London Marathon earlier this year and was thought to be in excellent physical condition when he embarked on his final dive. At the time of writing his body had not been found and the precise circumstances around his death remain a mystery.

Simon Rogerson

Keith Morris, photographer and diver: born London 15 August 1938; twice married (two daughters, and one son deceased); missing presumed dead off Guernsey 17 June 2005.

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