CATCH A FIRE: VISUALIZING BOB MARLEY
The reggae superstar would have been 72 today. Photographer and confidant Esther Anderson recalls capturing the seminal ‘Catch a Fire’ album cover image
In 1972, Island Records founder Chris Blackwell signed Bob Marley and the Wailers to the label and gave the group an advance for them to return to Kingston, Jamaica to record what would become the seminal debut album ‘Catch a Fire.’ Together with his stepbrother Bunny Wailer, guitarist-vocalist Peter Tosh, keyboardist Earl Lindo, bassist Aston Barrett and his brother, drummer Carlton Barrett, the group would go on to represent empowerment and a rebel culture expressed through music. ‘Catch a Fire’ would be remembered as one of the greatest reggae albums of all time.
The original album cover featured a Zippo lighter that opened up and the group’s revised name “The Wailers.” A few years later, an alternate cover emerged. Photographer Esther Anderson had spent the previous year documenting Bob and group as they evolved both as musicians and as people, creating a photographic archive that has yet to be fully revealed. The photograph of Bob smoking a joint, and the band’s full name “Bob Marley and the Wailers” would make ‘Catch a Fire” a visual powerhouse, capturing the group’s Rastafari idealism and musical contagiousness. Bob Marley was just 28 years old in the photo.
The album only had nine songs — the title track ‘Catch a Fire’ featured Bob condemning the atrocities and lasting impact of slavery:
“Every time I hear the cracking of the whip / My blood run cold / I remember on the slave ship they brutalize our very soul / Today they say that we are free / Only to be chained in poverty.” — LP’s title ‘Catch a Fire’
THE WAILERS photographs were born out of six photographic sessions done by Ms. Anderson in Jamaica and London in 1973. The first session for the ‘Catch a Fire’ album covers was done at 56 Hope Road, Kingston, Jamaica in March 1973.
“For the first session I choose 56 Hope Road because Island Records had bought the premises and it had a large garden with ancient mango trees that the leader of the group Bob Marley loved to sit under and cool out from the heat, to smoke and reason about their philosophy and the Rastafari way of life,” recalls Ms. Anderson.
It was under that mango tree at 56 Hope Road that Ms. Anderson took the first ‘close-up’ of Bob smoking his “spliff” as he called it. She thought it was a natural shot to make the point that smoking was part of the culture.
“I posed him with his shirt off, because I liked the way the sunlight reflected on the golden tone of his skin and bounce back into my lens. I used a Nikon with a 200mm telephoto zoom lens and Ektachrome transparency with 400 ASA speed. But I used the telephoto lens like a ‘Close-up’ lens for the high contrast and grainy quality I wanted in the shot.”
The deeply personal photographic narrative that emerged from their time together, formed equally out of Ms. Anderson’s evolution as a woman and a documentarian and Marley’s as a musical myth. The natural mystic and the beauty queen from the parish of St Mary on the north coast of Jamaica.
In late 1972, Ms. Anderson, then a young actress and photographer met Marley in New York at a party for Island Records. Bob greeted her by simply saying “hail” — he didn’t smile. He reminded her of a young Jimi Hendrix, strong features and a strong spirit. Ms. Anderson had just finished co-starring in a film with Sidney Poitier and Marley had been following her progress in the The Gleaner newspaper back in Jamaica.
That initial meeting launched what would become a six year collaboration with Ms. Anderson capturing intimate, everyday human moments while the Wailers recorded and promoted their first album. The photos and film footage, taken with a 35mm and Super 8 film between 1972–74, were meant to be used for album covers and promotional materials. In Marley specifically, Ms. Anderson, who traveled with the group around Kingston, Trinidad and beyond, found a kindred spirit. In many ways, it’s a narrative of a great cultural love story. There was an important nuance though. Ms. Anderson was very much a strong feminist, rooted in Rastafari culture and pan-African philosophy, and she had a camera in hand. She was the documentarian and she believed in Bob Marley. They were both strong willed people. The two would go on to have a deep personal relationship; she didn’t know about Marley being married with children, and Ms. Anderson would have a long career as a photojournalist for British newspapers and researcher for the Library of Congress.
The footage she captured meanwhile had been lost for over 30 years and then embroiled in legal issues around the intellectual property of her photos. When Ms. Anderson finally reconnected with her work, she produced the documentary Bob Marley: The Making of a Legend based on the lost footage.
Ms. Anderson, who now now lives in London, sees her work in revolutionary terms. “I can say this, I put everything I had into them (The Wailers and Bob Marley); into my country. It was my chance to put my country on the map, and I did it.” she reveals. “Photography was part of it. I used my Nikon camera as my weapon for revolution and my eyes as the lenses. That is how I understand photography. A spiritual journey for equal rights and justice and to point out to the beauty of our people, rather than the second rate representation that the Western powers were used to back in the times.”
The Esther Anderson Interview
Bob was just starting to grow out his locks again. He called that hat his ‘covenant’. Just moments prior to the shot Bob had stopped to help someone change a flat tire. At this point in the shoot he had got accustomed to the camera lens and its invasion into his space and he relaxed wearing his Rasta Tam and he explained the red was for the blood that was shed, green for the nature, and gold for the light and wealth of mankind.
When you were taking these photos, did you realize you were capturing such a historic cultural moment? As a photographer, did you find Bob Marley easy to collaborate with?
I had just completed production with Sidney Poitier in the U.S. after months of filming. The civil rights movement was an ongoing struggle and, despite feeling exhausted by taking the role of an African princess in love with Sidney Poitier, I felt compelled to continue my journey as an artist with my own voice. In this case to help the downtrodden of Jamaica. From the outset, I wanted to hear their album, Catch a Fire. The Wailers’ lyrics and rhythm were extraordinary. The lyrics of reflected the historic journey of all Jamaicans. As I said, although I was truly exhausted, suddenly, I felt totally fired up with the idea of creating the greatest Jamaican band anyone had ever seen or heard, just like The Beatles or the Rolling Stones. To be perfectly frank, it was an uphill road, an impossible task, given the political and economic circumstances of the time. Nixon and Kissinger were creating havoc and war around the world, including Jamaica, and the oil crisis was sending world economies to an exploding crisis. Adding to this, we had to deal with the post-colonial racism that dominated Jamaican and British societies at the time. So I thought, where do we start? I took a page from Jerry Schatzberg’s book, an old friend of mine, who both as filmmaker and as photographer had understood how to be bold in images and messages. He had encouraged me in my work as a photographer. After hearing Catch a Fire and looking at the way Island Records was promoting The Wailers, I understood they did not understand the meaning of The Wailers. They did not understand the revolutionary lyrics, the musical revolution they were capable of doing. My partner had become too alienated from Jamaican society. I had to immerse myself in Rastafari, which I did, against everyone’s advice. Many of my old friends in the U.S. and UK did not support nor understand this new personal journey. Even Marlon thought I had gone mad. As a photographer, I was not “capturing” anything. I was “representing” a vision that had not been represented before. It was revolutionary. I had been in England and the U.S. most of my life, so I understood the power of the image. I had helped to create the most powerful independent record company in the UK, Island Records, starting from scratch, hand in hand with Christopher Blackwell, and I had learnt photography with Robert Freeman, the photographer of The Beatles. The Wailers trusted me and they followed direction. The centre of our focus was Rastafari, social justice and equality in Jamaica, and I was determined that they become confident and bold as a band. A hell of a challenge, but we did it. And between Bob and I, we had written two of the most important lyrics in the history of Reggae music: “Get up Stand up, Stand up for Your Rights” and “I Shot the Sheriff,” among many others. And I mean reggae music as social resistance, not as music business, which is what the record companies and the shareholders talk about. It was a social revolution with music.
Did you consider yourself a photographer at this early stage in both your and Bob’s career?
I started taking pictures some forty years ago. My first images were of Marlon Brando which were shot between 1966–68 with a Kodak Brownie Instamatic. Professional assignments followed my passion for photography, including photojournalist for London newspapers, or as stills photographer for Lord Puttnam, producer of The Pied Piper, a film directed by Jacques Demy in Germany. During the sixties photographers like Avedon, Hiro, Schatzberg who did the Bob Dylan Blonde on Blonde album cover, and Robert Freeman, photographer of The Beatles’ revolution, used photography as one of the several means of artistic expression available to them. Whether it was to document events and performances or to break all so-called pre-written rules of photography in creating images in order to bring about unconventional works. From them I learned that a ‘close up’ ‘BLOWN UP’ to the large photographic image format becomes pictorial art. I always consider myself a creative person. A photographer, a filmmaker, a dancer, an actress, a writer. Like the artists from the Romantic movement in the 19th century, I feel possessed by representing our world, to try to make a contribution for the better of mankind.
Why do you consider it important to document music cultures?
In the case of Jamaican music, we enter a social and political, a cultural space where human rights are at the centre of our focus, in the same way as the civil rights movement in the U.S. I have helped many artists reached their goals in regards to music. I helped to create the music revolution that reached a peak in the sixties and seventies in the UK and U.S., all the way to the launching of the then younger bands like U2. More than musicians, the artists that we worked with at Island Records are friends, brothers and sisters. I feel like a mother to many of them, although in many cases, they are older than me. Jamaicans fought for a place in the world, to have our voices heard, our music danced to, and it was very hard to get through at the very beginning when we used to deliver records to local shops in London on the back of our Mini. People forget that when we arrived in London, there was no space for black people. Racism was rampant. We helped to bring down those barriers in the UK and Europe, and later in the U.S. too.
How does photography figure into all of this?
Photography has been the most beautiful creative medium to fight for equal rights and justice. And as we know now, the fight for equality has not ended. Our current political and economic situation demands even more determination to break down the new barriers erected by the bearers of prejudice and violence.
What artists/photogs/culture inspired you early on?
Growing up in England, the BBC and the independent channels made hugely important programs that alerted the world about social and political issues that matters to all of us. At the same time, the filmmakers working in Europe were able to work outside the Hollywood studio system, to tell human stories that brought awareness to our human sensibilities. Films on the Vietnam war helped to bring that aggression to an end. Similarly, films about the Wounded Knee siege, and the civil rights movement played and important role for all our consciousness. Marlon and I wanted to make a film about the Amazon nations. The French filmmaker Agnes Varda had a huge influence on me too. The musical documentaries at the time were very experimental. Friends like Denny Cordell made a fabulous inroad using multiple cameras. Other filmmakers like Stan Lathan, who inspired me to make my own film on the Wailers in the seventies. Orson Welles and Antonioni have been an inspiration to my films. I have worked with many filmmakers, cinematographers like Peter Biziou of Mississippi Burning, who understand the representation of light as poetry, as an art form. I remember looking through the lens of Geoffrey Unsworth on the set of the film Beckett, with Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole, and how helpful he was to allow me understand the magic of light in films. And that’s what I did all my life. I spent time learning from the masters of light in films until I started making my own films.
What would you say is the biggest misconception about your and Bob’s professional and personal relationship?
The music industry and the media need to regain a conscious view on the voices of freedom in the world. For too long, they have emphasized the banalities of show business activities, abandoning their role as beacons for freedom and social justice. Musicians like the Wailers and Burning Spear have emerged to speak on behalf of the downtrodden, to make an improvement to the lives of human beings and nature around the world. And still, the media, and social media, emphasize the anecdotal personal journeys, abandoning the artistic journeys, letting themselves down in the expectation of consciousness that both Bob and I felt was the important thing. I cannot get involved in personal issues. At this time of my life, I need to concentrate on the essentials.
How closely are your life and art are entwined?
Life and art are one indivisible substance. You cannot separate the river from the riverbed. You cannot separate the skies from the winds. We live in a world of unity, with no separation. Only individualistic approaches aim at division and separation.
Talk a bit about that one black-and-white photo of you and Bob looking at each other? It took my breathe away when I first saw it.
That was part of a series of photographs I took in Trinidad with the people during the Carnival celebrations. I intended to create a portrait of life in the Caribbean through creativity, including music and film. Most of the film and photographic material was stolen shortly afterwards in Kingston. So these images are only a fragment of a creation that today you would call an installation. The rest of the material should reappear one day, and i hope the people involved will have the decency to return it to me, including video tapes, film, and Super8 film.
Tell us about some of the discussions you and Bob had around Rastafari culture and how that informed your work? Tell us about the conversations you shared on Rasta at 56 Hope Road back in 1973.
So, I would say his conversion was that moment when he had his “vision” as he called it, of Selassie touching him on his forehead. Bob and I went to Nine Miles in St. Ann to visit the place where he was born. He told me stories of his grandfather whom he loved, and of his very young mother who gave birth to him and of his father, a 60 odd year old Englishman who left before he was born. He then took me to the top of a hill with a small one room building he had built himself. He said he had gotten into some trouble in Kingston. At the time he had his dreadlocks, but he cut them off to get away from the bad influence around him and came to live again as a farmer. But while working on the building he got tired and fell asleep. He said it was not a deep sleep. He was just resting when he suddenly felt a hand touch him on his forehead. Bob said it was ‘His Imperial Masjesty Haile Selassie 1’ and a voice inside him said “you are like Jonah — he was in the belly of the whale — Now you must go back into the world and do my works”.
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This story is adapted from The Contact High Project, conceived by Vikki Tobak and published exclusively on Mass Appeal, will culminate into a book and exhibition. Check out the Contact High website, Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter for more info.