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March 26 2012

Growing up black: Dennis Morris's portrait of the 70s

The photographer's pictures of black Britons during the 60s and 70s capture a period of seismic change that we can only really understand now

'The way we see things is affected by what we know and what we believe," wrote John Berger in Ways of Seeing. "The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled."

We know that Britain's official story – the one it keeps telling itself – is that it is a tolerant country with regards to race. This tolerance is not regarded as a work of progress but as an enduring expression of Britain's innate genius. This toleration had limits. It endured the presence of "different" kinds of people so long as they didn't make a difference.

"We are a British nation with British characteristics," explained Margaret Thatcher in 1978, during the same interview that she warned of Britain being "swamped": "Every country can take some small minorities and in many ways they add to the richness and variety of this country. The moment the minority threatens to become a big one, people get frightened."

And even as the central focus of the nation's anxieties shifted from Caribbeans to Muslims, from race to religion and from colour to culture, this essential quality remained firm. "We should talk, and rightly so, about British values that are enduring," argued Gordon Brown in 2005. "Because they stand for some of the greatest ideas in history: tolerance, liberty, civic duty, that grew in Britain and influenced the rest of the world."

But what we see in Dennis Morris's pictures of black Britons in the 60s and 70s – collected together in a new book – both challenges the limitations inherent in that framing and provides a counter-narrative to it. For in the photographs of people at church and at play, styling and protesting during this critical period in our racial history he transforms black Britons from objects to subjects and recipients of hospitality to cultural agents. We see not just a group of people shaped by their presence in Britain but shaping it: not content with being tolerated by "hosts" they demanded engagement in their new home.

The 70s were a pivotal period in black British history. When people started arriving in large numbers after the second world war, most planned to stay only long enough to earn some money and go back "home". But as Berger wrote in the Seventh Man: "The gold fell from very high in the sky. And so when it hit the earth it went down very, very, deep." So they stayed, married and raised families.

Morris's pictures illustrate the period in which black Britons, as a whole, moved from a state of transience to permanence. No longer just an immigrant community the children in these photographs have the task of reconciling the apparent contradictions between race and place. To them falls the burden of becoming British while remaining black, matching the colour of their skin with the crest on their passport – not just about the right to be in the country, but to stay in it, not just to survive but to thrive. To this generation was bequeathed the task not only of salvaging their own scattered and forgotten histories but relating to the rest of Britain how their shared histories made their presence possible. "We are here because you were there," explained Sri Lankan-born novelist, and director of the Institute of Race Relations, A Sivanandan, outlining the colonial ties that bind. The political rally cry of the time: "Come what may we're here to stay."

Throughout we witness the influences of Paul Gilroy's Black Atlantic at work. Flat caps and pork pie hats, small children dressed for church like little Lord Fauntleroy, platform shoes, flares long collars, head-wraps, miniskirts, cricket whites, rallies to support American political prisoners, The Carib Club and Gregory Issacs.

The mixed-race wedding, and various photographs of white people at social events are testimony to the fact that while this may have been a somewhat autonomous project it was by no means an independent one. Even in areas where there was a high concentration of black people, such as Hackney where these pictures were taken, the black experience was never segregated.

But this next generation could not fashion this culture out of whole cloth. "Men make their own history," wrote Karl Marx in the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. "But they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under given circumstances directly encountered and inherited from the past."

The Caribbean, to which many if not most of this generation maintained more than an emotional connection, was undergoing a period of cultural assertiveness and political turbulence. Globally it was a decade in which the Caribbean punched well above its demographic weight. In 1972 came the release of Jimmy Cliff's The Harder They Come; in 1973, the formation of Caricom, the Caribbean Community; in 1975 the release of No Woman No Cry, Bob Marley's first hit outside of Jamaica, marking the emergence of the first third world superstar. And in 1976 the West Indies cricket team thrashed England at the Oval. I was seven at the time, and I remember well the phone ringing in Stevenage as the small local Caribbean community celebrated every wicket that fell and six that was struck and my mother, standing at the door, shouting at me halfway up the street that "Brian Close had gone".

A year later there was the battle of Lewisham, where the mobilisation of the National Front was met with fierce resistance. In 1978 came Steel Pulse's album Handsworth Revolution suggesting these expressions of cultural resistance had travelled and could translate. Notwithstanding Jamaica's explosive, violent and dysfunctional domestic politics at the time, all this added confidence to the notion that "we" had something valuable with which to engage.

Where Britain was concerned those circumstances were inauspicious. The 70s were a period of particular upheaval – a decade in which post-colonial Britain too found itself in a traumatic and profound transition. There were four elections, blackouts, an IMF bailout, massive strikes, mass unemployment, 25% inflation. With punk rock in the ascendancy, the anthem for a young, mostly white, generation could be heard in the main refrain of the Sex Pistols' hit God Save the Queen: "No future, no future, no future for you."

At the very moment when black youths were trying to imagine new beginnings, the very certainties on which the lives of many white working-class youths were founded – full employment, subsidised housing, state economic intervention – were coming to an end.

That decade came to a close with the election of Thatcher, whose victory was aided in no small part by her crude appeal to white anxieties over immigration, heralding a more overtly antagonistic racial landscape for the 80s.

"Minorities are the flashpoint for a series of uncertainties that mediate between everyday life and its fast-shifting global backdrop," writes Arjun Appadurai in his book Fear of Small Numbers. "This uncertainty, exacerbated by an inability of states to secure economic sovereignty in the era of globalisation, may translate into a lack of tolerance of any sort of collective stranger."

And so it was that the efforts to establish existential legitimacy were complicated and interrupted not just by the rise of the extreme right but by a popular racist discourse that found free rein in the press. The contempt in which the black British community was held at that time, the limits within which they were tolerated and the apparent precariousness of their presence in the mediated landscape was exemplified by coverage of the Notting Hill carnival.

In 1977 the Express's front page read: "War Cry! The unprecedented scenes in the darkness of London streets looked and sounded like something out of the film classic Zulu."

"If the West Indians wish to preserve what should be a happy celebration which gives free rein to their natural exuberance, vitality and joy," argued the Mail on 31 August 1977, "then it is up to their leaders to take steps necessary to ensure its survival."

The Telegraph blamed black people for being in Britain in the first place, declaring: "Many observers warned from the outset that mass immigration from poor countries of substantially different culture would generate anomie, alienation, delinquency and worse."

That the carnival had emerged as a response to race riots in the 50s and is now the largest street carnival in western Europe is testament to how far things have shifted. That "black culture" would be blamed for the social unrest that erupted in around England in 2011 is an indication of how far we still have to go.

What was once feared as an emblem of the foreign incursion into our national identity is now embraced and even marketed as a sign of our modernity. Britain's diversity was central to the marketing in our successful Olympic bid, even if the day after the result was announced the terrorist atrocities of 7/7 put multiculturalism back in the dock. This did not happen because people just thought it was a good idea or, more bizarrely still, because it came naturally to the British temperament. It happened because it was fought for, by black and white, until our absence, not our presence, was unimaginable.

There was nothing inevitable about that outcome. Morris's images reveal a community in unselfconscious flux and renewal.

The fact that its continued existence is no longer contested and, when it comes to market British modernity even celebrated, is not a function of tolerance, but of endurance and struggle.

Growing up Black by Dennis Morris (£250 until 30 March including a signed limited edition print; £300 thereafter) is published by Autograph ABP. For more details visit © 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

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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