You don’t have to be a reggae fan to recognize the images. Three frames, taken on location in 1974, show Bob Marley, eyes closed, enjoying a spliff in a cloud of smoke.
It’s like you’re in the room with the Marley – whose international career is beginning to spark – and with photographer Dennis Morris, who says, "it is said most students either have a Che Guevara poster or my Burnin' photo!"
And he’s right. There are many iconic images of Bob Marley who died at just 36 in 1981, and Morris has taken more than his fair share of them.
Artistic prints of the three Burnin’ images are available for sale individually or as a set from 1xRun. The signed and numbered prints are limited to an edition of 420 (natch) each and come with a certificate of authenticity.
The two met when Marley came to England on that "Catch a Fire" tour in ‘74, when Morris was a teenager.
"For me, it was easy (photographing Marley)," Morris tells OnMilwaukee from London, where he lives.
"I don’t know why, we just bonded from the beginning. I was a young kid searching; he was a young man with a vision, which he shared. I never felt ill at ease; it was always joyous and inspiring.
"None of my shots of Bob were taken in a photo studio. My influence and technique was reportage. They are all taken with available light; they are all moments caught through deep conversations such as these shots. We were together in a hotel and he said, ‘let me show you how to smoke a spliff Dennis’ ... there were only three frames."
Three frames were more than enough, it turns out.
Morris captured an enraptured Marley; a future superstar in a calm, private moment, an intimate setting. The facial expressions, the evocative background, the quality of the wisps of smoke in two of the shots, which become a cloud in the third. ... You can almost feel (and smell) the scene.
"I think the reason these images have become so iconic is that the viewer gets a sense of a moment," Morris tells me. "You can feel the vibes and also with the legalization of marijuana, it’s of no surprise."
When I ask Morris if his photographs – the Burnin’ shots are but three of many frames in which he captured Marley, whom he accompanied on tour – helped contribute to the legend that continues to grow even now, as we approach the 40th anniversary of Bob’s passing, he is modest.
"My photos were part of the tapestry, there were many people involved; some directly and others indirectly," he says. "There was no stopping Bob Marley once he found a record company which was willing to back his vision. He had the band, the songs and he knew how to make it all work; he was a magical messenger."
For fans of two massive musical high points of the 1970s – British punk and Jamaican roots reggae – Morris’ images mean much more than just Bob Marley. He photographed many album covers for Virgin Records’ Jamaican Front Line series, as well as for Island Records.
And, dear readers, it was Morris who – perhaps ironically because there are no photographs on it – he designed Public Image Ltd.’s innovative "Metal Box" packaging.
While I have my own list of Morris highlights (photos of Linton Kwesi Johnson, Prince Far I, The Abyssinians, The Slits) – did I mention he was the singer in Basement 5? – I wanted to hear about his.
"The work I did with the Sex Pistols is definitely up there," he says. "It's the most comprehensive insight into the band – check my book, 'The Bollocks' – also the work I did with Public Image Ltd. – I designed the logo, did the first album cover and designed the Metal Box – and, of course, Marianne Faithfull ('Broken English' session)."
But Morris hasn't photographed musicians exclusively. He has also created a respected body of work of powerful images of his hometown.
"There are other sides to my work which are more socially conscious – 'Growing Up Black' and 'Southall: A Home From Home' – currently in the collection of prestigious museums like Tate Britain or the Victoria & Albert."
A selection of Morris’ Bob Marley photographs was recently featured in an exhibition in Los Angeles called "Portraits of the King (of Reggae)," in celebration of the 75th anniversary of the birth of Marley.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.