Celebrating Marley's Ghost
Photographer's 'Soul' Illuminates a Legend
By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2009
In 1976, photojournalist David Burnett was sent by Time to Jamaica with the magazine's Hollywood correspondent. Their assignment: a feature on the island's indigenous reggae music. The star: Bob Marley, of course.
Minor problem, though. "I must confess -- I hadn't heard of Bob until the week before I went on the trip," Burnett says. "One of the researchers I was working with said, 'You're gonna do a story on reggae, so we need something on Bob Marley.' I said: 'Who's Bob Marley?' "
One love, one heart ... and no clue!
Burnett laughs. It's especially funny now, given that the renowned photographer and Contact Press Images co-founder has just published a book, "Soul Rebel: An Intimate Portrait of Bob Marley," with a corresponding exhibition that opened last weekend at Govinda Gallery.
"In 1976, most people in this country didn't know what reggae was," says Burnett, who lives in Arlington. "We knew what calypso was; we'd all kind of grown up with 'The Banana Boat Song/Day-O,' even if we didn't know what it meant. But you had to look around to find people who were really into music to find somebody who knew what reggae was. I didn't . . . But that was the days before you could sit down in front of your PC and just Google everything."
Burnett photographed Marley in and around the artist's compound on Hope Road, in Kingston, and Time wound up publishing a single image of the emerging international icon -- a tiny black-and-white.
But the young photographer from Utah had hundreds of other photos of Marley, along with some of reggae's other leading lights, including Peter Tosh, Burning Spear and Lee "Scratch" Perry. Burnett added to his collection a year later, when Rolling Stone sent him to Europe during Marley's "Exodus" tour to photograph everything from sound checks and soccer games to quiet, contemplative moments on the bus. "It was interesting," Burnett says, "because things were taking off for Bob, but he was really grounded. He had this nice bus, but I'd been on fancier buses in Iowa with politicians who got 12 votes."
Burnett's portfolio is overflowing with world leaders and other famous figures, from presidents and popes to the Ayatollah Khomeini. (Time's controversial Man of the Year cover in 1979? That was Burnett's Khomeini portrait.) But there was something particularly unforgettable about Bob Marley, and not only because he was such a user-friendly subject.
"It was really a dream assignment, because Bob was happy to engage you; he was a very willing and giving subject," Burnett says. "Almost every direction he looked, I couldn't go wrong ... Bob had a wonderful visage -- a great face and a great presence. It wasn't just that he looked good, which he did. It was that you felt something more than you were seeing in the viewfinder."
So much wisdom. So much quiet charisma -- sort of like being in the presence of Pope John Paul II, says Burnett, who photographed the pontiff. "There are a few people who have this very charismatic air to them," he says. "Bob was just a guy, but he was some guy."
Marley died in 1981 of cancer, at age 36, having earned iconic, if not messianic, status around the world. Time has hardly diminished his legacy: "Legend," a posthumous compilation of Marley's music, has become the top-selling reggae album of all-time, and the poet-prophet remains one of the most beloved figures in pop music.
His songs -- about justice, righteousness, freedom, humanity and love -- continue to be celebrated around the world. (Yep, that was Marley's uplifting anthem, "One Love," being performed by Will.I.Am, Herbie Hancock and Sheryl Crow at Barackapalooza at the Lincoln Memorial last month. Nope, there's nothing better than the real thing.)
"Soul Rebel" arrives on the occasion of Marley's birthday: He would have been 64 on Feb. 6. Burnett says he hadn't given much thought to doing an exhibition, let alone a book, until four years ago, when he saw a Marley poster hanging in the college dorm room of his daughter's friend.
"It was one of my pictures!" Burnett says. "I honestly don't know if we'd sold the rights to it, or if somebody saw it in a magazine and decided to make a poster out of it or what. But they thought it was neat.
"And here were these kids, all of whom were born after Bob Marley passed away, and they were looking at him and his music with warmth and magnetic attraction. It was amazing."
And it compelled Burnett to dust off the decades-old Marley portfolio, which was full of hundreds of unpublished images.
He mentioned the collection to his friend, Chris Murray, the Govinda Gallery owner. A music lover who'd seen Marley perform at Georgetown's McDonough Arena in 1976, Murray begged to see the photos. Then, he begged Burnett to do a book -- and wound up writing the introduction.
In an interview, Murray calls the photos "extraordinary," adding: "The images are so stunning that I had an almost physical reaction to them. Bob gave a lot of intimacy in these pictures."
One photo that you won't see: Bob Marley with Burnett himself.
"My daughter asked, 'Where's that picture of you and Bob?' " he says. "I wish maybe I had one. But I wasn't thinking about it in 1976-1977; that picture does not exist."