kate simon - Bunny Wailer

kate simon – Bunny Wailer

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Kate Simon was born and raised in upstate New York. Her father, medical doctor and amateur photographer, introduced her early on to photography. In the late 1970s Simon photographed the pioneers in Reggae Music including Bob Marley, Lee “Scratch” Perry , Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear, and many more. She took some of the most amazing documentary photographs of Bob Marley and the Wailers during various tours and day-to-day life. Simon’s shots are occasionally candid, catching her subjects in intensely personal moments. She has captured photographs of almost every occasion in Bob Marley’s life including celebrations, shock, football games, his funeral and more. She can name claim to the most famous portrait of Bob Marley ever taken, the front cover of the “Kaya” album. Her photos of the 1977 Exodus tour are perhaps the most astonishing of all and are a tour de force in documentary photography.

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Simon discusses her work, Bunny Wailer, Kingston, Jamaica, 1976, selected for publication in Who Shot Rock & Roll by Gail Buckland (Knopf, October 2009, $40).

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In the book, Gail quotes you as saying, “You can’t make a picture happen. [the person has to] give it to you and you have to be ready for it.” I would love if you could talk about that shoot with Bunny Wailer, about your experience, about who you are and who he is, and how your collaboration made that image possible.

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Kate Simon: Well that is a damn good question. Certainly a picture of its time, it was shot in 1976. First of all it is certainly that Bunny Wailer had just put out one the absolute hallmark corner stone record of Roots Rock Reggae called “Blackheart Man.” Bunny Wailer was one of the original Wailers with Peter Tosh and Bob Marley. His singing and his falsetto and his heart, it was just an unbelievable voice. It’s nothing like what his face in that photograph would suggest because it is really soft and just angelic. You can really hear it in “Reincarnated Souls,” “Hallelujah Time,” and “Pass It On” and in the other really well known Wailer songs.

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I was living in England at the time as a photographer for one of the weeklies in the music business. Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records, sent me down to Jamaica. I got there as the sole photographer and there were two journalists and all three of us were waiting for Bunny to come down from the hills, because he lived in Bull Bay, about nine miles outside Kingston and we waited at Tommy Cowan’s yard. Tommy Cowan was literally the Bill Graham of Jamaican Roots Rock Reggae circuit 1976. He had this office where Jacob Miller, Gregory Isaacs, Peter Tosh, Robbie Shakespeare—everyone that created this genre of music hung out.

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I had to wait for Bunny for a week. I waited and when he got there I was ready and I would say so was he. This whole week that  we were waiting he was thinking about what he wanted to project to us journalists who were waiting for him. Bunny finally did come with the intention to give me photographs. He was really pitching these really intense images my way. What a face, what intelligence, what fire beneath. He was really clear in regard to who he was and who he was going to give to me. It was not a game face though; it felt very authentic. The only thing that I would say that was to my credit is that I was not intimidated. I will never forget it. It was to this day one of my favorite sessions.

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Most of the people that lived then are dead now: Peter Tosh, Dennis Brown, Jacob Miller, Augustus Pablo, Bob Marley, the fathers of this genre of music. Bunny Wailer is extremely alive right now, and he was alive then. I am so grateful to him. It was a really effective exchange. He could tell I was getting it and that is why he gave me some more. Every shot was good and every picture was good. One shot builds to the next shot, and with the energy you know when it is working. The subject knows when it is working and you know when it is working. It is hard work for both, but it is great. You are in the zone.

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I want to talk to you about what Gail is doing with the book. Her idea is to move past the genre of rock photography. One of the things that I got really into when talking with her about it, was the idea that with music and photography that there is actually a place where the two meet. The image is so essential to our understanding of music. You as a photographer become a contributor, a collaborator in the experience of the music.

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Arguably, a lot of us photographers who are drawn to shoot these musicians have their own kind of rhythmic sense. Don’t you think there is a rhythm to communication, don’t you think a stranger picks up. As a photographer it is your job to make a stranger trust you, respect you and like you, I mean instantaneously. You are throwing your own rhythm to the subject and then they are responding to it, it is utterly rhythmic and it is energetic and it is an exchange of energy. Being sensitive and appreciative of the music makes you be able to approach them.

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You shot Bob Marley’s album cover. This is before the Internet and before CDs. One part of a record before the 80s was not just the packaging of it but the communication of their message.

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I can remember the person who showed me the “Are You Experienced” album cover, delivering it like it was the tablets of Moses. The famous cover that you are referring to is “Kaya” after which they started to use my pictures on other albums. As an artist it feels great to me, Bob Marley was the unbelievable photo subject because he was completely respectful of photography as a vocation, he understood that it was real work. He really let me know that I was welcome whenever he was around. That was just so freeing and so helpful. It was significant to me in regard to my growth as a photographer because I tried all these new ways of shooting and new kinds of film because this subject Bob Marley so inspired me and I knew that he would not stop me, I knew that he would be with me and encourage me. He was a sent-from-heaven subject. He was just like you would imagine: a very conscious, empathetic, spiritual, really positive person. I think it is a gift from God to be identified with a person that I think so highly of, so many years later.

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