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Photo Credit: Kate Simon

By John Leland—-

Kate Simon first photographed Bob Marley at the July 1975 gig that kicked off his global career, and in the six short years that remained of his life, she photographed him again and again: at home in London or Jamaica, on the road, with heads of state or among the friends who knew him as a neighbor, not a celebrity. She has some thoughts about the man and how the public perceived him.

“That image of him as the laconic, peace and love guy smoking a joint — that was the antithesis of Bob,” she said the other day. “He was really a hard worker. When people put up a poster of Bob in their dorm room and say, ‘I’m going to smoke a joint,’ what they should be thinking is, ‘How do I realize my potential?’ That’s what Bob was thinking.”


Credit: Kate SimonBob Marley in Heidelberg, Germany, on the European Exodus Tour in 1977. Marley and the Wailers had just finished their sound check in the big auditorium when he wandered over to the far corner of the hall, where these prosthetic limbs were stored.

Recently, Marley’s family and an American venture capital firm announced a plan to make Marley the face of what they called “the world’s first global cannabis brand.” The makeover of Bob Marley — from the rebel behind anthems like “Get Up, Stand Up” and “Burnin and Lootin” to the face that launched a thousand bongs — would seem to be complete.

“It’s a very reductive view that people have of him,” said the writer Vivien Goldman, who worked briefly as Marley’s publicist and now teaches the course Bob Marley and Post-Colonial Music at New York University.

“It’s a phenomenon I call ‘cuddly dread,’ ” she said. “It’s a sanitized version. He got more militant with each record. He wouldn’t be happy to be reduced to a pothead or party guy. I remember him saying of someone, ‘He only smokes herb to get high.’ To Bob it was a sacrament.”

Ms. Simon’s photographs, which she collected in a 2004 book called “Rebel Music: Bob Marley & Roots Reggae” (Genesis House), capture other sides of Marley. There are marijuana and joy, yes, but also Marley as newshound; as constantly evolving musician; and as political peacemaker, inveigling the rival Jamaican politicians Michael Manley and Edward Seaga to shake hands onstage in 1978 (Photo 11), when their parties were engaged in violent clashes that played out in impoverished neighborhoods.

Through all of this, Ms. Simon had uniquely intimate access. “He was always trying to help me,” she said. Where other musicians tested her, insisting that she smoke a spliff before she shot them, Marley approached photography as a collaboration, and welcomed her into his world, she said. “I could go anywhere, and he was, ‘She’s cool.’ ”


CreditPhoto Courtesy of Kate Simon“I can’t be sure but I think Neville Garric, the Wailers’ art director, took this shot of Bob and me,” Ms. Simon said. “Whoever it was, I’m glad that they did because it’s the only one I have.” The European Exodus Tour,  Germany. 1977.

Her best-known image of Marley, for the 1978 “Kaya” album, leapt out “because it was one of the only pictures of Bob smiling,” said Ms. Goldman, who was at the shoot. The photo has since made its way around the globe, perhaps unwittingly contributing to the tourism-board image that has grown around Marley (photo below).

Yet there is also a vitality to the image – the sharpness of Marley’s gaze, the wiry strength under the athletic suit — that is harder to possess or cuddle up to, even for a face that has become a global brand. In the frame he is both smaller and larger than his image.

“I was trying to show what a sweet person he was, how much I cared about him,” Ms. Simon said. “I just wanted to give thanks and praise. Jah Bob.”


CreditKate SimonOne of Ms. Simon’s best-known images of Marley, used for his 1978 “Kaya” album cover.

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