Burnett's photos capture Marley's humanity
It stands to reason that there are more than a few iconic images of larger-than-life figure Bob Marley, the late reggae star.
In one famous image, a 30-year-old Marley leans against an acoustic guitar on the grounds of his 56 Hope Road compound, a wide grin on his face.
In another -- also in black and white -- his face fills the frame. His slightly sidelong glance, the smoking spliff hanging between his lips. If you see this picture, you know it immediately.
These are just two of the hundreds of images that photographer David Burnett took of Marley in Jamaica in 1976 while on assignment for Time magazine. Burnett's long list of credits also includes work published in Fortune, The New Yorker, The New York Times Sunday Magazine and others.
Eleven of Burnett's photographs -- almost all of them previously unseen -- are on display this week at VP Gallery, 320 E. Buffalo St.
Burnett himself will be on hand for Gallery Night and Day, Friday, Jan. 15 (6-10 p.m.) and Saturday, Jan. 16 (11 a.m.-5 p.m.). Signed copies of Burnett's book of Marley photographs, "Soul Rebel: An Intimate Portrait of Bob Marley," will be available for purchase.
"What's remarkable about it is not only to have a one-on-one with Bob Marley but to spend time alone with him in his compound in Jamaica," says VP Gallery's Bill Appleby. "Out of the hundreds of photographs that David took ... Time magazine only used one. So, in the book there are over 100 photographs that have never been seen before."
The show came together quickly, according to Appleby, who says, "It fell from the heavens.
"A very good friend and patron of the gallery happened to be having dinner with David Burnett about five weeks ago," he recalls, "and she e-mailed me at midnight and said, 'You have to meet this David Burnett.' I met up with him here on a Saturday, he was in town, and we just got talking about it and one thing led to another."
Burnett's photos taken that day in 1976 not long before gunmen ambushed the compound, wounding Marley -- and other images captured during the European leg of the "Exodus" tour in 1977 -- had only been exhibited once before, in Washington, D.C. But those were digital prints, says Appleby, who suggested to Burnett that he make chrome prints of some of the images.
"It is the first time that David printed on metallic paper," says Appleby. "He loved the idea, but given that he was so close to this he wanted to do a test. So, he tested the prints -- and there's a beautiful print of Bob Marley's hands -- and he liked it but he didn't love it. So he showed it to his wife and some friends around Washington and they absolutely fell in love with this photographic process. So, those prints were done expressly for this show."
The results are quite stunning.
Most of the photographs shot in Jamaica -- but not all of them -- are monochrome images. Conversely, most of the European tour shots are in color. The resulting photographs offer two vastly different kinds of looks at one of the most engaging personalities of the 20th century.
The home shots are pensive, deep and iconic. The rich depth of tones in the monochrome images catalogs every crease in Marley's face, especially in a stunning photograph of Marley's eyes that we discovered yesterday is a close-cropped version of another portrait on display. The detail rendered in those subtle tones depict the humanity of a figure that is often painted as god-like.
A photo of Marley's surprisingly fragile-looking hands has the same effect.
Meanwhile, the mostly color shots taken in Europe -- during soundchecks, on stage, on the tour bus -- give us an all-access pass to see Marley among his collaborators, behind the scenes, laughing, arranging his bed on the tour bus, gazing out the window, deep in thought.
One of the European photographs on view in Milwaukee -- a shot from behind of Marley gazing out from the stage at the nearly empty Pavillon Baltard in Paris -- is especially strong, both visually and emotionally.
While VP's exhibition of Marley photographs is not wide, it is deep. Burnett's photos will move you and bring into the soul of one of the most recognizable personalities in pop culture.
While 40 digital prints were on display in Washington, 11 artists proofs will be on view at VP Gallery (due in part to space limitations). However, all 40 images -- as well as finished prints of the 11 images hanging -- will be available for purchase.
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