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March 25 2012

Dennis Morris: 'Suddenly we were black, not coloured'

Dennis Morris is celebrated for his iconic photographs of the Sex Pistols and Bob Marley. But few knew that in that pivotal era he was also documenting black British life in London…

I meet Dennis Morris on the steps of Hackney town hall in east London, and we set off up Mare Street, through a church yard that leads into a small park, and out on to Homerton High Street, where his old school, Upton House Comprehensive, has been transformed into City Academy. It was there, aged 16, that Morris told a careers adviser that he wanted to be a photographer.

"The guy just looked at me like I was mad," he says. "Then he said: 'Be realistic. There's no such thing as a black photographer.' Those were his words and I've never forgotten them. I told him about Gordon Parks and James Van Der Zee, but he just looked at me blankly and shook his head."

Nearly 40 years later, with his new book of photographs, Growing Up Black, about to be published in a limited art edition, Morris has agreed to guide me around the streets of Hackney, where he grew up in the late 1960s and early 70s. It is a place that, as we soon find out, only fully exists now in his memories. The street names are the same, the churches and the schools remain, but four decades of redevelopment have rendered much of his boyhood manor all but unrecognisable. "It's strange," says Morris. "So much has changed but it's still the same vibe on the street, still the same mixture of people, though it's a lot more trendy these days."

For those of us who know Dennis Morris primarily for his music photography, specifically his evocative shots of the Sex Pistols in their mid-70s heyday – Malcolm McLaren made him the group's official photographer – and his portraits of reggae pioneers such as Bob Marley, Gregory Isaacs and the Abyssinians, the book is a surprise. It is a slice of social history as well as a kind of impressionistic visual autobiography. As Morris puts it: "Alongside the music stuff, I was also taking photographs at a pivotal time for black people in Britain, politically and culturally. Suddenly we weren't coloured people any more – we were black. It was a question of pride and of self-definition. I see it now as a pioneering time, a time of great struggle and change."

Growing Up Black is divided into eight chapters, each one documenting a stage in Morris's photographic life and providing a wider glimpse of black British experience. The book's narrative begins in St Mark's church on St Mark's Rise in Hackney, where Morris was once a choirboy, and ends in the Black House, a north London building occupied by a radical British black power collective led by the controversial figure of Michael X. "The book touches a lot of bases, I guess," says Morris. "The church, reggae, radical politics, the neighbourhood and street life. In a way, photography was my life and my life is there in the photographs I took. I was always recording my experience with the camera."

Morris's family came to England from Jamaica when he was four years old. St Mark's church provided a religious and social fulcrum for both his mother and her son, as well as the wider West Indian community in Hackney. The vicar, Reverend Donald Pateman, was a local legend: a man on a mission to do good in the community and keep the local youths on the straight and narrow.

As we walk up Sandringham Road, traversing Cecilia Road, where his childhood home was, Morris turns quiet. The rows of Victorian terraced houses have been replaced in great swathes by more nondescript houses and apartments. Outside the church, a crowd of older West Indians have gathered for a funeral. We sit on a low wall opposite and chat quietly.

"The vicar was a strict disciplinarian," says Morris. "And the West Indian parents loved him for it. He ran the choir like a public school and dressed us up like little toffs in Eton suits. We took a lot of stick from the other kids around here, but we were tough street kids and we gave as good as we got. It was like a strange double life I was leading, but it definitely gave me a sense of self-confidence."

The choir was funded by the church's benefactor, Donald Paterson, who had made his fortune in camera technology. It was Paterson who organised and financed the St Mark's camera club, where, at the age of nine, Dennis Morris discovered his  vocation.

"He's the reason I'm a photographer," says Morris. "He convinced my parents that I could make a career out of it even when the school was against it. More than that, though, he opened my mind to the possibility that you could go beyond what was expected of you."

Growing Up Black is dedicated to Mr Paterson, who, as Morris writes, "guided me, taught me, encouraged me". Morris tells me about the bittersweet day, several years later, when, at 18, he had one of his images used on the cover of NME for the first time. "Believe it or not, I'm not sure if it was Bob [Marley] or the Sex Pistols, or even if it was 1976 or 1977. But what I can remember clearly is running from my house to Mr Paterson's office to show him the front cover. It was like a vindication of all his faith in me."

When Morris entered the office, though, he was met by a group of sad-faced men and crying women. That day, his mentor had drowned in a lake alongside three young members of the choir, while on a camping trip to Scotland. "I was devastated," says Morris. "It was like a light went out in my life, but, after a while, I realised that he was always there with me when I was taking a photograph and if I gave up, I would be letting him down. That's what kept me going."

There is just one portrait of Dennis Morris in Growing Up Black. It was taken in 1973, when his career as a music photographer was just beginning and he's wearing stylish shades and a black polo neck. This was also the year he first encountered Bob Marley, when the Wailers arrived in London from Jamaica to play the Speakeasy. Having bunked off school, Morris waited outside the club from early morning. His patience paid off when Marley invited him inside to hang out with the group and to shoot some pictures while they were sound-checking. The next morning, again at Marley's request, he accompanied the Wailers as they boarded a van for a short tour of Britain. "I put my cameras in my school sports bag alongside a change of clothes and just took off with them for a week or so," he says.

That reckless decision led to a career as a music photographer with the NME in the 1970s, and to his meeting the Sex Pistols and bonding with John Lydon over their love of reggae. He subsequently became a floating member of Lydon's post-Pistols group, Public Image Ltd, designing their logo and the round metal canister that contained their Metal Box album. "It was a creative time, but nobody ever got paid," says Morris, laughing.

Alongside his adventures in the music business – he formed Basement 5 with the DJ Don Letts in the late 70s – Morris kept on photographing the world around him. He has two other series about London: one based in and around Southall, and another focusing on the white working-class community in Hackney. One senses that Growing Up Black, though, is his most personal project.

"It brings back a lot of memories," he says of the series. "It reminds me of how hard it was back then. There was a lot of sacrifice, a lot of struggle. I remember when I was starting out as a photographer and still living at home, I would keep the window open in my room so I could hear the public phone on the street ring. We didn't have a phone so I used to give people I worked for the number of the public phone outside the house."

I ask him about the extraordinarily evocative series of photographs entitled simply "Wedding, Town Hall, Mare Street, Hackney, 1971". "Man, that was a big thing, a real big thing. I knew a few black guys who had married white women, but this was the first time I saw a wedding between a white man and a black woman. I was a photographer for hire then and got jobs word of mouth because I was cheap and dependable. I remember a certain tension in the church, mainly coming off the in-laws. You can feel that tension in the photographs. It was moving, though. I felt they were very brave people, the bride and groom. Pioneers."

The book could easily have been called "Black Pioneers". You sense that sense of adventure and uncertainty in many of the photographs. It's there in the portraits of the early sound system pioneers posing in sharp suits beside their custom-built speakers, in the defiant gazes of the young radicals in thrall to the black power movement, in the casual poses of the young women gathered at a blues dance in a Hackney basement. As the cultural historian Stuart Hall writes in his introductory essay: "Without working consciously to a plan, Morris seems to have used every opportunity – studio work, special occasions, photoshoots, in the street, around the ''hood', indoors, the big moments, the incidental – to capture another dimension of this experience. The results constitute a thoughtful, beautifully observed, richly expressive, quietly eloquent collection of images of everyday black diaspora life, as well as making a major contribution to an archive of tremendous social, historical and visual significance." © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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