“I freely admit my ignorance in 1976 of not really ever having heard of Bob Marley when I was sent to Jamaica,” says David Burnett, co-founder of New York’s Contact Press Images and photojournalist whose images of Marley comprise Soul Rebel: An Intimate Portrait of Bob Marley, Blender Gallery’s latest exhibition of musical imagery. “I had the good fortune of working with editors who constantly surprised me, constantly sent me on projects about which I was perhaps quite uninformed, but which, as a photojournalist with a reasonable eye and a keen sense of discovery and adventure, could really sink my teeth into.”[fold]
Marley is an icon in the most utilitarian sense of the word. His visage may have fronted many a T-shirt, but understandably so – he was essentially the voice of reggae’s cultural proliferation. His name is also still a kind of shorthand for prolific marijuana use. But emblems have a way of eliding the nuances of a personality, something better captured in Burnett’s series of photos.
Marley is indelibly linked with his homeland of Jamaica, the small island country that was to become the crux of ska, reggae and dub, but for Burnett this prelude to his collaboration was not obvious: “During the interview, Bob remained sitting near a window, in conversation with David Devoss (the reporter for the feature). I was bouncing like a little jumping bean around the room, looking for the right angle, the right light, the right expression. Afterwards, we spent some time doing portraits in the courtyard of the house at Tuff Gong, outside, Bob with his guitar. He seemed to be quite at ease, as he was just being himself. That is usually when the best, most interesting pictures get made.
“A year later in Paris, at the start of the Exodus tour, he saw some of the photographs from the previous year, reprinted in a French music magazine and I suspect that having seen the work I'd done previously, he was immediately convinced that I was serious in my work and once again just let me be part of the travelling ensemble. That is what a photojournalist strives for. The chance to be present, to tag along, to find those real moments.”
The concept of photojournalism is strongly at odds with the notion of celebrity photography, particularly today. Photojournalism relies on documentation and essential, expressive moments far more than it does the gloss and structure of image. As such, this exhibition, much like Marley, rejects the lustre of celebrity: “Sadly, most ‘celebrities’ today operate under the guidance or direction of image creators, limiting what is available to the press, and being very protective of the client,” observes Burnett. And of that fateful feature: “I think one thing our report on Bob Marley shows is that talented people can take care of themselves, and that the more they are allowed to show through in the journalistic process, the better it is for all concerned.
“I think any time we aim our camera at someone, or something, we are making editorial decisions. Angle, light, even just the choice of the moment's expression. But it's true that rather than do something which is about me as the photographer, I tried making pictures which were true to what I saw in Bob at those moments,” says Burnett. “Sometimes simplicity is the best way to go, and with some beautiful light, there is little else you need for a subject to reveal himself.”
The exhibition swings from shots of increasing intimacy and proximity to Marley’s face and hands, to glimpses of his life on the road, onstage, at home and in the studio. The exhibition shows the breadth of his life and documents his persona in public and private – a persona that never seems to waver.
“There are several which I find evocative: the close up of his eyes, the close up of his hands, the profile black and white shot and the close up head-on shot with the spliff in his mouth. All of those strike me, even 35 years later, as being very 'true' photographs,” says Burnett.
“The one photograph which really jumps out there, I would say, is the long thin ‘slit camera’ shot, which is essentially a moving image of a running singer, that image laid down on a moving piece of film. It definitely captures Bob's energy and mirrors the excitement which he would always bring simply by walking into a room. He was, after all, Bob Marley.”
Soul Rebel: An intimate portrait of Bob Marley by David Burnett shows at Blender Gallery until June 22.
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