When you meet Dennis Morris, you meet a laid back, calm-voiced man who obviously doesn’t have to make any effort to look cool. Within seconds of chatting, his passion for photography and music is inherently obvious. Starting out, somewhat famously, as a photographer by bunking off school when he was 14 to take pictures of Bob Marley in Dalston in London, he went on to take pictures of the Sex Pistols, become an intrinsic member of PiL, form Basement 5 and become a powerful man in music in his own right.
Born and bred in the capital’s hard-nosed east end in the 50’s, photography wasn’t exactly the most common hobby for the youth of his neighbourhood to pursue. While his peers played football, the young Morris found photography through his local church. “It was hard, but I was lucky in many ways really. I was a choirboy, and with the choir that I was in there was a benefactor of the church. He was into manufacturing photographic equipment and his name was Donald Patterson,” recounts Morris across the table in an upmarket coffee shop. “He got involved with the church and one of the things he did was set up a photographic club for us. One of the things we were able to do was to borrow cameras. He saw my enthusiasm and he started giving me magazines and books and teaching me how to use all the equipment. So that’s where it all came from really.”
With the support of the photography club, and with Donald Patterson feeding his interest, Morris soon began to live and breathe his hobby. Literally. “I was sitting there getting high on developer, as my bedroom was also my dark room – all blacked out. I got a bit of flak from my friends who were interested in football. I would always hang out with them but I always had my camera with me and was always taking pictures.” It was this habit of keeping his camera at his side at all times which gave birth to and then perfected his now signature reportage style of photography.
Later in his career, he would have to keep his finger on the trigger to capture the unpredictable movements and explosions of Sid Vicious, John Lydon et al, as well as documenting in detail his time with Bob Marley and Marianne Faithful.
Turned down by the London College of Printing – even though he had a personal letter of recommendation from his mentor Patterson, “I think they thought I’d forged the letter or something!” he laughs. Wanting to further himself to follow in the footsteps of photographers Don McCullen and Gordon Parks who he aspired to, Morris found himself travelling right across London to study in Wimbledon. When he got there though the young photographer found that he was being taught stuff he’d learnt years before. All the basic skills that comprised the first year of his course he’d already done at the church group, leaving him at a loose end. “I spent all my time outside of class smoking weed,” he explains. “After the first year, they turned round and said they didn’t think I was right for the course. Even though I had passed the first year. It was a hell of a trek there anyway.”
For a young photographer who’d already scored a front page of Time magazine with his Bob Marley shots, gaining a formal education with his camera wasn’t his number one priority. Especially as the ‘punk era’ was beginning to unfurl. Frustration and aggression through increasing unemployment was on the up and people were starting to speak out – especially through music, fashion and art. “It was a very creative period, it was a period where anything was possible. There was a lot of depression around, and when I look at what’s happening now it kind of reminds me of then. It’s like we’ve gone full circle,” Morris remembers. “There was nothing else we could of done back then unless you went and did something for yourself. If you relied on the system then you were gonna get fucked. With the Pistols I learnt to smash and grab. I learnt this whole putting things together and just going for it.”
It was his photography of Marley that had put him in contact with the infamous Sex Pistols, and he became one of the few people to really witness the mayhem that was them on the road. Morris reckons he took so many pictures of the band that he could produce an exhibition of them that could fill the Tate. He describes his time with them as a reportage photographer as “one of his war zones”, recounting the time where he and John Lydon were sitting in a hotel room with Sid Vicious tearing up the room next door because Nancy hadn’t been allowed on the road with them. On hearing the sound stop he went to the door and caught the bassist on film surrounded by his carnage. He also got a now famous picture of Vicious smoking on his bed. “That was just one frame. After that he had a coughing fit because he couldn’t really smoke, Sid wasn’t really a smoker.” He also, of course, took the iconic portrait of Sid Vicious at the top of this feature. And it’s best to let Morris describe how it came about in his own words: “That was in Sweden. I’d never been to Sweden before in my life. I got a train, then got a ferry to Norway. When I got there I had no idea how I was gonna get to Sweden. Eventually I got another ferry across and got in a cab. I didn’t know where they were playing or staying so I asked the driver where the Sex Pistols were. He didn’t understand so I asked him where a rock group might be. He thought he knew of a place and drove off there. I walked in the door and there they were going ‘YEH Dennis!’ Everything was like that then. Then it was the usual thing – mayhem all of that night. In the morning I thought it was a good time to take some pictures. I knocked on John’s door – he wasn’t going to get up. So I knocked on Sid’s door. He was like ‘Whaddya want?’ I said, ‘It’s Dennis – I want to take some photos’. He let me in and moved some furniture out of the way, and then he just leaned up against the wall while I took pictures. There’s a whole series of him like that – there’s that one of him winking and there’s some of him pulling funny faces. He had Steve’s guitar for some reason as well, so there’s some of him with that. And that’s how it went.
They were total mayhem. The sadness for them was that they never, ever got a chance to play live. The only time they could was in their sound check. If you ever saw them soundcheck they were a fucking great band. But then come the gig it was always too small. Malcolm would always book them into somewhere that was too small.”
Now an elder statesman of photography, Morris is keen to be known not just for his famous music images. He’s also had his work documenting the growth of the Asian community in London’s Southall area since the 1970’s, bought by English Heritage and is a permanent feature at the Gunnersbury Park museum. By constantly keeping his camera at his side during his youth means he is one of the only people to be able to produce an extensive snapshot of what life was like growing up in the black communities in east London, and he was one of a select group of artists commissioned by the Chinese government to create a body of work for the Beijing Olympics. “I went all round China – I even went as far as Tibet – and produced 12 pieces – the biggest being 3 metres and it was exhibited in the Today Museum in Beijing for the Olympic Games,” he says proudly of his work.
By being a pioneer of something, you have to sit back and watch it become fashionable. And then more populated. From when he started back in the 60’s, music photography is now a highly subscribed choice of career.
“I don’t think it’s become too popular. The problem with most photographers is that they only have a bit of this, a bit of this and a bit of this,” he says. “Whereas I was lucky. I didn’t really work with that many bands. I did a lot of work with the Pistols and PiL. I did a lot of work with Marley. Then I worked with Marianne Faithful. So my work is the full story. The problem is now with rock photography is that a lot of bands don’t give the same kind of access. A lot of it is because a lot of bands don’t have that much to say and they don’t want to be exposed in that way… I’d say I was one of the only few, and I’m blowing my own trumpet here, who’s out there working and is truly recognised as an art form.”
Dennis Morris is a true gent, and an amazing person to talk to. His passion to capture moments in time has borne an entire industry of music photography but it was never his intention to focus just on just music. “I’m always constantly moving – ahead of the game in many ways,” he says. “When I first started, my approach to photography was way ahead of the game. My mission was never to be a rock photographer.”
Images: Dennis Morris/Morris portrait – Motohiku Hasui