i-D: Why did you call the book ‘Growing Up Black’? and not just ‘Growing Up’?
Dennis Morris: Once we were called coloured people. My generation was called black; this came from the American Black power movement. So we said it loud: black and proud.
Click images to enlarge.
There aren’t many photographers – actually there is just one – who remember their teenage years as an official photographer of Bob Marley on tour. A blinder that came about because he was bunking off school waiting for the singer to arrive at soundcheck on Margaret Street. The pictures landed Dennis the cover of Time Out when he was just 16. And that wasn’t even the first; when he was 11 his work was published on the front page of the Daily Mirror. That Dennis Morris is extraordinary, is something that becomes very apparent very quickly. His Bob Marley pictures attracted the attention of a kid people would call Johnny Rotten, the start of a longstanding friendship and professional relationship, beginning with Dennis taking the first official pictures of The Sex Pistols. The pair collaborated later on a record label, Branson, signing young reggae artists. Then Dennis formed his own black punk band Basement Five and later a hip hop group, Urban Shakedown signed to Virgin Records. But none of this is what we’re supposed to be talking about. The relevance today is that Dennis is about to release a new book called ‘Growing Up Black’, 95 pages of black and white pictures about growing up, black, in Hackney. As Dennis told i-D (he has photographed for the magazine many times), his was the first generation “called black”. The book features archive pictures of domestic life through the 60s and 70s, from protests at Trafalgar Square to local weddings and is accompanied by essays on black culture from Professor Stuart Hall, writer and lecturer Kobena Mercer, author and columnist Gary Younge and Director of Autograph ABP Mark Sealy. ‘Growing Up Black’ is a piece of history.
i-D online put some questions to Dennis, who once upon a time was known as ‘Mad Dennis’ by his school mates because he preferred a camera to a football.
You started so young! Why did photography fascinate you as a child? From the first time I saw a picture being printed, I was hooked! It is such a magical process; unfortunately few young photographers ever get to experience this magic because of the digital age.
What was it like growing up in Hackney, how does the area compare now? Growing Up in Hackney at that time was inspirational and tough! You had to be positive in yourself as the odds were against you because of the area being seen as underprivileged. Now it is rather fashionable and gentrified.
The East End was quite politically charged then, did you get involved with politics? Being black was political enough… My views were to get out, to move upwards and onwards because once you told people you came from Hackney, they didn’t want to know.
What’s your favourite picture you’ve taken? All my pictures are my favourite pictures; I can remember every single frame I have taken and how I came to take it.
What was it like photographing Bob Marley on tour? Photographing Bob Marley on tour was a dream; as he was such a charismatic person, a real live wire! I have many stories of Bob: it’s a book!
What was the first Sex Pistols gig you went to? It was at The 100 Club.
What was John Lydon like back then before the band had taken-off? John was the same then as he is now, a real character; he was sure of himself and knew were he was going.
Did you dress like a punk? Punk is a state of mind not an aesthetic statement. The clothes I wore were battle fatigue.
How do you establish a connection with your subjects? How do you make them feel at ease? My approach to my subjects to make them feel at ease is to act as if I don’t know what I am doing; it works every time!
How did you get involved with Island Records? I got a call from Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records, who was aware of the work I was doing at the time, in particular the Public Image Ltd designs (ie: logo, metal box and album sleeves). He wanted to restructure the art department so I was given the position of Art Director with A&R capacity. I signed LKJ (Linton Kwesi Johnson) and The Slits to name a few; among other things, I created the Marianne Faithfull Broken English cover.
What music are you listening to at the moment? My daughter Pearl, she is a star! She is at the Brits, watch out for her!
What were your favourite style periods? 60s and 70s, I hated the 80s.
Do you think ‘culture’ is as relevant now as it was in the 70s and 80s? Culture is always relevant; it changes from each generation.
Do you think there are still subcultures? Yes they are still subcultures but the difference is, between the subcultures of the 70s to today’s subcultures, there is a lot more money involved.
Growing Up Black by Dennis Morris is available at a pre-publication price of £250, and will be priced at £300 from its release date, 30th March.
Images from left: Dennis Morris, Playing Tag Bolling Road Hackney 1976 © Dennis Morris/ Dennis Morris, Young Gun. Hackney 1969 © Dennis Morris/ Dennis Morris, Anti-apartheid demonstration. Trafalgar Square 1971 © Dennis Morris/ Dennis Morris, Dalston Boys. Downs Park Road café. Hackney 1975 © Dennis Morris/ Dennis Morris, Wedding; Town Hall, Mare Street. Hackney 1971 © Dennis Morris/ Dennis Morris, Dennis Morris, Hackney, 1973. © Dennis Morris/ Dennis Morris, Riding into the world. Hackney 1976 © Dennis Morris. Final image as seen in The 1.9.99 Issue, September 1999.