How a Dalstoner made a name in the fame game

St Mark’s Dalston Hackney London E8 130116 © DavidAltheer[at]
© Pearl Morris
Dennis Morris and, top, St Mark’s

IN LIVING MEMORY, communication once depended on the public telephone.

Amazingly, before mobile phones came into existence, people had to find the right change, then fiddle with a fixed handset in one of those mysterious Tardis-like boxes in the hope a connection could be made.

You couldn’t leave a voicemail and often the phone did not work because it had been disabled by vandalism or a full coin box. Yet for one Cecilia Road Hackneyite, a boy in his pre-teens, the red box was a business office, a door to the future. Dennis Morris’s mother could not afford a private phone so when the schoolboy took up photography he would send prints of his pictures to news agencies and hope they phoned back to say they had sold a pic.

One day when he heard the public box ringing, and raced downstairs and out into the street to take the call, an agency told him the mass-circulation Daily Mirror had bought the rights to run a picture he had taken of a London demonstration supporting Palestinian militants.

On the front page! The 11-year-old was on his way to an exciting career.

Morris had been fascinated by photography since he was eight. One of the parishioners at St Mark’s church in Dalston, where he was a choir boy, happened to own Paterson, a photographic equipment business, and he recognised the boy’s enthusiasm.

At 16, waiting for young reggae musician Bob Marley to arrive for his soundcheck at a West End club, Morris had another break when the Jamaican, impressed by the boy’s ability, invited him to travel on the tour van to take pictures as the band travelled Britain.

Marley © Morris
Irie: Marley by Morris

The teenager ran all the way to Dalston  to pack a sports bag and leave immediately. The gamble paid off: his photographs of Marley and the Wailers became world-famous.

The adventure also gave him some great stories, his best-known one being the yarn about how Marley, on seeing snow fall for the first time, thought the white powder from the sky must be a plot from Babylon, the oppressive white society.

Morris’s pictures photos of Marley caught the eye of the young Johnny Rotten (John Lydon), who was the same age as his band, the Sex Pistols, who soon learned to trust him completely.

For a year Morris took hundreds of shots, becoming friends with Lydon and later with PiL/Public Image Ltd, his post-punk incarnation.

Morris has made a few records himself, authored several photographic books, is involved with TV projects and still runs his photographic studio.

The Institute of Contemporary Arts in the heart of London has organised an exhibition of the Leica-loving Morris’s work and it is his work for PiL that interests the prestige venue. “Dennis MorrisPiLFirst Issue to Metal Box”, opens at the ICA next week.

PiL © Dennis Morris
John Lydon and his PiL pose on roof of his Chelsea house in 1978

Any teenagers seeking inspiration in a tough world might enjoy the exhibition. Imagine, Morris built a brilliant career singlehandedly, and without the internet, let alone a smartphone.

David Altheer 160316

* Dennis Morris/PiL runs at ICA, The Mall, London SW1Y 5AH, Wed 23 Mar 2016-Sun 15 May 2016. Free. Good disabled access and facilities. 

* Main pictures, © DavidAltheer [at], for sale for reproduction. All others © Dennis Morris. A  BBC film, What Do Artists Do All Day?, will be viewable on iPlayer for a few weeks.

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