A thousand lives by picture

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Her legendary subjects are too numerous to mention. From Debbie Harry on the roof of her New York apartment, to Bob Marley on tour, to intimate portraits of the likes of  WH Auden and William Burroughs, Simon’s iconic images speak in, and of, a million tongues. Her extensive archive is only surpassed by her passion for what she continues to capture so brilliantly.

What brought you to photography?
It was through my father. I have three brothers with me being the only daughter; he loved to nurture my interests. My father had three things that he loved: chess, tennis and photography. He used to go down to a camera shop called Arax and as a kid I would always go with him. He was constantly taking polaroids and the process of developing them was just magical to a little girl.

What is it about portrait photography as opposed to landscapes and still life?
Now that’s a very good question. Well, I’m good at still life, but have always been hopeless at landscapes. I just can’t put my heart into it. I’ve only ever wanted to photograph people, and as I’ve got older, I feel like I’ve got better at it, that I’ve got it sussed. With doing portraits there’s a beautiful exchange, you get something back, you know. There’s this humanistic element to it. I love photographing people that I respect.

The stories you hear from people and the lessons they teach you. You can’t beat a long collaboration. I photographed Burroughs for 22 years and Bob Marley from 1976 until his death in 1981. With someone like Burroughs, he wouldn’t tolerate anyone that he didn’t like. You have photographed across so many genres, and far beyond the confines of music.

That suggests to me you were never too attached to one particular scene.
True, although when I lived in London in the late ‘70s, I was purely a music photographer. It was an amazing time. I loved it. I mean, the diversity. I would be photographing James Brown in the morning and Bobby Womack in the evening. You’re perhaps best known for your portraits of reggae artists.

How did you get involved?
As a photographer, my antennae are always up and seeking out what’s interesting culturally. I first saw Bob Marley in London. I was introduced by [photographer] Anna Capaldi and got to known him, and it developed from there. He was just incredible. No one spoke, no one sang, no one performed like him. Then Chris Blackwell [Island Records founder] and Richard Branson would regularly send me to Jamaica. I remember Richard Branson buying me a return ticket to Jamaica. I asked him what he wanted me to do when I got there and he said, “I just think you’ll make good use of the ticket.” Reggae was really at its peak in the mid-to-late 70s, the time you were there.

What are your memories of that time?
It was just unbelievable, coming first from shooting classic rock in England and then going down to Jamaica. The way everyone dressed, the way they moved, the way they talked was so poetic, vivid, unique, vibrant and intelligent. The music had soul and faith. It felt insane. I’d never seen people dress this cool. I remember Tosh, Bunny [Wailer], Gregory Isaacs, [Augustus] Pablo. Jacob Miller could have been huge. He died in a car crash. And of course [Paul] Simonon, [Joe] Strummer, Johnny Lydon, they all listened to it.

Did it change your outlook on life?
Oh yeah, it changed my outlook. I couldn’t believe the Rastafarian faith. It was very spiritual. Relying on your own spirituality. Bob Marley taught me the importance of relying on your own spirituality and faith.

How do you choose what and when to shoot?
Is it a case of having the camera with you at all times? I shoot formally, I don’t snap. It’s a formal sitting, preferably in their domain. The subject can then think about how they want to present themselves. Then a kind of rhythm takes over, a rhythmic exchange, an exercise. It has to do with your own sensitivity. It’s visual, but feelings are involved too.

So what inspires you now?
People I love. I don’t want to photograph anyone I don’t love. I still find cultural figures that I want to photograph. I’ve got to photograph most of my favourite figures. Except Tennessee Williams. I missed out on that one. And how do you view music photography in this digital day and age? I’m a real student of photography. I love [pioneers] Edward Weston and Diane Arbus. I still shoot film. I don’t like digital photography. I love to touch printed matter, you know. And until I have to change that, I won’t.

by Erik Stein

All images Kate Simon courtesy of Dave Brolan