bob marley

Contact High: “I Shot Bob Marley”

In the series, Contact High: The Stories Behind Hip Hop’s Most Iconic Photographs, writer Vikki Tobak talks with those who have played critical roles in shaping hip hop imagery. They offer a rare glimpse of the creative process that went into the making of each photo.

Getting access to the original and unedited contact sheets, we see the “big picture” being created and can look directly through the photographer’s lens. Photographers typically don’t show their contact sheets. They’re a visual diary. Film negatives on a roll of analog film allowed these photographers (and now us) to see the full range of images in order to develop the “money shot.”

We caught up with photographer David Corio to take us through his never-before-seen contact sheet of Bob Marley during his last show in London…

London, 1980

On June 7th, 1980, Bob Marley and the Wailers stepped onto the stage at London’s Crystal Palace. It would be his last London concert and one of the final shows before his untimely death 10 months later. Few people realized Bob was in deteriorating health that spring day where he performed a stirring two-hour show “in an almost hypnotic trance,” recalls photographer David Corio, who was there on a freelance assignment for a London-based music magazine.

“He was constantly flashing his locks, and raising an arm to point to the sky. He seemed to be in an almost hypnotic state. Later, after looking through the three rolls of film I shot, I noticed that he only has his eyes open in about three of the photos. It’s hard to describe, but there was something mystical about him. I think the vast majority of the audience were quite spellbound by his performance.”

The Shoot

“I was freelancing for New Musical Express and they asked me to shoot the show for them a few days before. I don’t think many people were aware that he was sick at the time apart from a few of his inner circle at the very most. It was a hot afternoon and Bob and the Wailers came onstage around 6pm. This venue has a lake in front of the stage and as I didn’t own a really long lens so I waded into the lake with my camera and a few rolls of film in a carrier bag. I got to the front of the stage where the water was about four feet deep and shot from there.This was the only time I saw him perform, but although he seemed very laid back and maybe not as energetic as in some of his earlier shows he was mesmerizing to watch.”

The Shot

Bob Marley
Bob Marley performing at Crystal Palace, London, June 7, 1980

“He was a shaman dancing, his locks all over his face throughout the show. If you put the film into a camera you could often squeeze 37 frames out of a roll of 36 exposure film. I was down to that last frame so was waiting to try and capture the best image I could with what I knew would be my last photo of Bob. He was dancing and throwing his locks back and forth but I knew I hadn’t got ‘the’ shot (a big difference with digital where you can check what you have just shot). So I waited and you just know when you press the shutter that you have got it. I thought it worked because it is so graphic and also although you can’t see his face most people would recognize that it is Marley straight away.”

The Camera Nerd-Out

I had a Pentax K1000, a simple all-manual camera built like a tank and for the Marley show I had two lenses—a 30 mm and a 120 mm. Both are really unusual focal lengths that never caught on but were great lenses. I had about 4 rolls of HP5 film.”

“Many years after I took these photos, I had a leak in my roof and lots of my film was damaged. You can see where the emulsion has been destroyed at the top of the contact sheet but thankfully the rest were unscathed.”

The Q+A

This photograph of Bob Marley is one of many Reggae legends you photographed. How did that become an area of interest for you?

I’d first heard Desmond Dekker in the early ’70s on the radio, but when I was at art college in Gloucester, England from 1976 to 1978 reggae was beginning to be played at a lot of punk concerts and was getting featured in the music press. I bought a few records and went to sound systems and shows and got hooked. The first big show I shot was Jacob Miller and Inner Circle at The Marquee and then Marley, Peter Tosh, Black Uhuru in 1980/81 and I was going to see Jah Shaka’s sound system on a regular basis for some heavy roots—and still do.

By the early 1980s I had got bored photographing lots of depressed indie bands for NME and went to Black Echoes and got to photograph lots of reggae, R&B and hip hop musicians that were coming to the UK. I’ve loved reggae ever since and traveled round Jamaica a few times by minibus. It’s a great way to see the island, meet people and hear great music. I still buy reggae vinyl now and think it is still underappreciated how much reggae has influenced hip hop. Many of the early artists Kool Herc, Biggie, Busta Rhymes, Jay-Z, KRS-One, Slick Rick, Bam, Eric B & Rakim, Heavy D have Jamaican roots and reggae toasters, dub, sound systems and fashions have been hugely influential.

What was your career like at the time of this shoot?

I had been working freelance for NME for about a year and had stopped working at a liquor store as a day job a few months before. I had just turned 20 and was trying to survive on shooting music for papers and magazines and had just gone on tour with U2 for NME through parts of Ireland before they had signed to Island which turned out to be big for me. It was exciting times and hip hop was just appearing in London around then too—and reggae was exciting.

What made you first want to become a photographer?

I hated school and wanted to find a way to get out, so I had enrolled in night classes in photography when I was 14. I applied for a photography course at Gloucester Art College at 16 and was surprised when I got accepted. I did it for two years and when I got out most of my mates were still at school.

What was the process of looking at the contact sheet like? Was there an obvious stand-out shot?

I never did contact sheets! It was a bad habit but I was so used to shooting, developing and printing photos overnight for the next day’s deadline that I would develop the film and look at the negatives as they dried and select from there. I probably missed a few good images that way but the last frame stood out for me on this roll.

What was your first camera you used and what is your favorite camera to use now? Do you shoot digital as well as analog?

The first was my dad’s ‘Kodak Pony.’ I use different cameras for different subjects varying from my Hasselblad to a plastic Sprocket Rocket panoramic, an old Nikon FM2, Leica M4—all simple manual exposure/focus cameras. I use Nikon and Canon digital cameras too but still prefer film.

What do you miss about the darkroom process?

I sell my photos as fine art silver gelatin fiber prints and do platinum palladium printing too so still go into the darkroom. I think you learn so much about being a photographer if you know how to develop and print. I love the darkroom. I can easily spend the whole day in a darkroom. It is very meditational with the sound of water running and music blaring in a room lit by a red light!

What role does photography play in hip hop and reggae’s legacy?

It is huge. Photography has had a huge influence as the musicians are so image-conscious. A way to stand out from run-of-the mill artists was to have your own individual style and this coincided with MTV and music videos having a big impact in the early ’80s too. Look at the way that so many hip hop artists pose for photos. It is in your face and makes them memorable.

In a larger sense what are some creatives, artists, experiences or people that have had an impact on how you approach your work?

Barney Bubbles was a brilliant designer who encouraged me early on, as did Ian Dury who I was lucky to know from the age of 16. I always encourage young photographers to look at the greats of photography and study how they took photographs. Some of my personal favorites are Bill Brandt, Irving Penn, André Kertész, Roy DeCarava, Eugene Smith, Val Wilmer. As far as musicians go I was lucky enough to photograph Curtis Mayfield, Dennis Brown and Bobby Womack on several occasions and got to know them a bit. They are of three of my favorite singers. They were the nicest and incredibly humble people too. I felt honored to be in their presence, but they were all totally down-to-earth, which is probably what made them so popular with their contemporaries too.

Could you give us some more insight into your creative process?

It is always good to stretch yourself and find new subjects to shoot. I never use assistants or stylists but keep it simple and prefer to work one on one with people preferably with daylight. I find shooting in studios with lighting and seamless paper very boring. I use different cameras, films and processes and would say don’t be afraid to try something different even if it doesn’t work. When shooting portraits I make sure I’ve done research on the subject and usually ask them about themselves to relax them and shoot while having a conversation. I’ll maybe ask them to move one way or the other but not pose people directly. I prefer to let their own personality come out by the subject feeling natural and comfortable.

The Contact High Project, conceived and curated by Vikki Tobak and published on Mass Appeal, will culminate into a book published Fall 2018 by Clarkson Potter/Random House. Check out the Contact High website, Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter for more info.

Follow David Corio on his website. And check out his book Black Chord (Universe, 1999, text by Vivien Goldman

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Contact High: Photographer Kevin Davies On Shooting Public Enemy #1


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