Kate Simon On Photographing Bob Marley, Madonna, Patti Smith: ‘There’s nothing more magic than photographs’

As a preeminent photographer of her generation, Simon built her photography career capturing indelible images of cultural icons.

From Madonna to Patti Smith to William S. Burroughs and a Who’s Who of 70s-era artists that includes The Rolling Stones, Queen and David Bowie, photographer Kate Simon’s list of subjects doubles as a rundown of American legends and global titans. But it’s her expansive association with Bob Marley that has defined her career, as the reggae luminary was a frequent muse for Simon’s lens from the height of his career up until his death in 1981.

Kate Simon Book Signing and Photo Exhibition Party for “Rebel Music”
Kate Simon (left) at the 2004 ‘Rebel Music’ book signing. hoto by Louis Myrie/WireImage

Simon’s treasure trove of soul-piercing photographs of Marley fill the new book Rebel Music: Bob Marley & Roots Reggae from Genesis Publications. Originally published in 2004 with a limited run of 500 copies, the updated edition is now available to the wider public for the first time. With an introduction written by Smith, the reprint is a retrospective of the photographer and her muse, providing a rare, behind-the-scenes look at both the triumphant and quiet moments of the musician who became a mythological figure.

Simon spoke to Observer about her path to photography, Marley’s joyful radiance and the icons she’s met (and photographed) throughout her career.

Do you remember your first time picking up a camera and what you took a picture of? 

Probably my father. That’s why I’m a photographer. My father was a doctor, but he was really enthusiastic about photography. He used to take me to the camera store with him and taught me how to use the old Polaroid land camera, so I’m sure he was the first person I photographed.

A man with dreadlocks leans down with hands clasped in a black and white photo
A shot of Bob Marley from ‘Rebel Music’. © Kate Simon

When you set off on your career, did he ever try to influence you to keep it as a hobby and not pursue it as a profession?

I didn’t have the advantage of having my father in my life to discourage me, as he died when I was 17. That was a real tragedy because I was very, very, very inspired by him and very close to him. I had three brothers, and I was the only girl, so my father and I were very close.

Do you think you embarked on a life behind the camera because of the loss of your father? Maybe it gave you the push to go all the way with it.

Obviously, I’ve thought about it and psychologically, it’s highly likely. I went with my father all the time to a camera store in Poughkeepsie where I’m from. He showed me pictures of the Holocaust, which was very dramatic but also very impactful. Significantly, I grifted a camera that had been my father’s, which he bought in Jamaica—the one and only time he’d been there during the last year of his life. I started my career with it, so it’s slightly obvious that career is connected to daddy.

Do you still have that camera?

That’s a pertinent question because I apparently hate change and so I adore this one model camera: the Nikon F2. The problem with something like a Nikon F2 is the meter has parts that expire like fish, and you can’t get it fixed. I’ve been on a vast inquiry trying to find someone who can. I have digital, but I don’t like it, even though it is useful for retouching and you can do creative things. But I’ve used the Nikon F2 so much; it’s like an extension of my hand.

Well, maybe somebody reading this piece can help you.

If somebody says, “I have a Nikon F2 with a black body and a working meter,” they should get in touch with me because I would buy it. I’m not kidding—that would be great.

Do you remember your first time meeting Bob Marley?

Vividly and completely. Someone actually asked me, “Why do you still think about Bob Marley” and it’s like, listen… he was unforgettable. I said to my mother that I was thinking about dropping out of college at George Washington University and—I couldn’t believe it—she said “Okay.” I knew I wanted to be a photographer, so I went to JFK, flew to London and became a photographer there. I started shooting at Oxford, but then I was the music photographer for Disc and was on the road with Ozzy Osbourne, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Queen and David Bowie. When I was on the staff of Sounds, a British weekly, I went to see Bob Marley at the Lyceum in 1975, and that’s when it all changed. I was introduced to Bob after the show.

A man in a green jacket and a large knit beanie lounges next to a window
Bob Marley on his European Exodus Tour, 1977. © Kate Simon

From those early days, did you have a feeling this was someone who’d end up defining your career, or was he just another subject? 

You can’t read into the future, but you can get a hunch about things. We had a really good rapport and I learned a ton working with him. I knew that he would accommodate me, so I tried all these different techniques and really developed as a photographer. It’s so bizarre it’s almost fifty years ago and I remember everything about him. I’m sure anybody who knew Bob well or was associated with or photographed him feels the same way that I do. He was unlike anybody else.

What was he like as a person and a subject? Was there a difference?

He was very sweet, and he was very present. He worked really well with you. When you were taking his photograph, he gave you his time. He never dissuaded you. He was never rude. As a person, he was just lovely. Everybody wanted to be around him, but he wasn’t chatty. He had a charismatic aspect to him. His talent on stage—how he moved and sang—was unlike anything I had ever seen. Nobody’s in the same sphere as him. I never gave him any direction; the whole point is that I was approaching him as (the famous French candid photographer) Cartier-Bresson. Everyone from that era was inspired by him. I didn’t want to tell Bob what to do; we also had good chemistry and I wanted it to be natural and authentic. He also had a really good sense of how to be a photo subject. And he had a great, great, great face. He had a great jaw, great cheekbones and good lines. You couldn’t take a bad picture of him. But that wasn’t the point, because what was coming through him was somebody really serious and powerful as a person. I was grateful and lucky to have been able to take his picture.

What photos come to mind as the highlights of your extensive work with Bob? 

There’s one when he’s sitting on a tour bus; it’s just so powerful and beautiful. I was the photographer of the European Exodus tour. We went from Paris to Brussels to the Hague and Berlin and Munich and back to London for four nights. We were on the road then, in 1977.

In the book, there’s a picture of Bob praying in Berlin, which is amazing. Bob had just done this riveting performance of “War,” which I’d seen him do before during all the soundchecks and the shows. But that day he did a particularly vivid rendition. I was like, “God, that was over the top. That was intense.” I went backstage, and there he was, just like that.

A red, yellow and green book cover featuring the face of Bob Marley
The cover of Simon’s new book, ‘Rebel Music’. © Kate Simon, published by Genesis Publications

I know you gave that photo to Rita upon his passing. Speaking of, what was the final portion of Bob’s life like? When did you hear he was sick?

When I was on the road with him, he had a bandage on his foot but he danced, exercised all day, played football and was riding his bike. There was no idea that this man was anything other than an incredible athlete. I didn’t hear anything was going on until the very end. There were murmurings of things, but I asked around and people said there was nothing to report. And then he died and I knew I had to go to his funeral, there was no way I wasn’t going to go.

It’s stunning he passed when he was 36. I’m sure people looking back don’t realize he was so young.

When I shot him on his Exodus tour, he was 32, and he had already done albums like Catch a Fire, Burnin,  Natty Dread, and Crisis. Think of all of the songs. That was the peak of his career. But also, looking at these pictures he doesn’t seem that young. He’s 32 in these pictures, but there’s something about him that seems older. There was something about him. He was something else.

Do these pictures make you happy or bum you out? I know it’s different for everybody. 

In my opinion, there’s nothing more magic than photographs. I’ve spent my entire life going through photographs, starting with my father. I love looking at them. They don’t depress me. I think they’re Holy Sacraments. The people that matter to me, I travel with their photographs.

I’m going to give you some names of other people you photographed, and I’m wondering the first thing that comes to mind. What about someone like Andy Warhol?

I loved Andy Warhol. He was great. I loved photographing him. I took some great pictures of him and worked at Interview across the hall from where his studio was with my good friend, writer Glenn O’Brien. I liked Andy a lot, and he was a great photo subject, too.

What can you tell me about Madonna?

I loved her. I loved her. I’m not kidding. She came over to my studio and we just did a great shoot. It was one of my favorites. I didn’t know who she was at the time, and she was stunning. Like, God, she was beautiful. I’m someone who has photographed hundreds of people, and she stopped me in my tracks. Her eyes were penetrating. She was a stunning beauty. There’s one I took of her that is in the Smithsonian.

What about Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe? 

Patti wrote the introduction to Rebel Music, and it’s brilliant. I was reading it again yesterday, and I think it’s one of the greatest things she’s ever written. It’s beautiful and concise, articulate, poetic and really true. I have about two rolls from the shoot I did with them, and a picture from that is in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian as well. Patti called me and said, “Come down here now” and that’s how the shoot happened.

You also photographed William S. Boroughs.

My pictures of William have been used all over. One photograph of mine of William was on the cover of his posthumously collected works called Word Virus. I did a show of just him for Nick Knight’s gallery in London called “Showstudio.” I collaborated with William from 1975 to 1995—twenty years.

He seems so different from Bob. Or was he?

Not really. They were born one day apart. William was born on the fifth of February and Bob was born on the sixth. They were both totally focused and self-reliant, complete originals. Culturally, they’re obviously very different, but I adored shooting William, too. They’re my two favorite subjects, William and Bob.

Kate Simon On Photographing Bob Marley, Madonna, Patti Smith: ‘There’s nothing more magic than photographs’