As visceral an art form as reggae music is, it seems obvious that the genre would lend itself to stellar photography. There are enough characters, stories, and hairstyles (to say the least) to fill a museum. For whatever reasons (be it a lack of marketability or funds), there aren't a lot of good reggae photography books available, and two of the genre's best wonks are out to change that. Just a few months ago, photojournalist Peter Simon and longtime reggae champion Roger Steffens released as solid a music photography tome as you'll ever see. Their new book, Reggae Scrapbook, available from Insight Editions, is a strong look at roughly 35 years of international reggae culture spread across eight well-designed chapters. From a contextual standpoint, Steffens does a great job of telling the individual artist's stories with the type of dense brevity that's hard to pull off considering the extensive biographies of many of those featured here. Jammed but not crammed into half-page features, you can learn about "the father of reggae," Joe Higgs, dying penniless in a Los Angeles welfare hospital and how Roland Alphonso of the Skatalites had a stroke and had to learn how to play the saxophone all over again by listening to his own recordings. These should be widely disseminated stories; in small pockets around the world, they are, but not sufficiently. The book is multidimensional, with a surprising number of gifts and trinkets tucked in every few pages or so. Readers will find pull-out posters, post cards, signed ticket stubs, autographed playlists, and more. In that sense, it is a true reggae scrapbook, filled with enough multigenerational clippings and art to merit its $45 price — with an hourlong DVD included.
What Simon brings to the party is nearly four decades of intimate reggae photography. You'll see hilarious shots of some of the genre's ancillary characters, like Big Youth, Max Romeo, and Augustus Pablo, all clowning around as moderate stars on the rise. There are also rare images of Peter Tosh playing with the Rolling Stones as well as family photos of the Marley clan as kids and adults. Some of the photos come from Simon's first book, Reggae Bloodlines, published in 1977. He estimates that 25 percent of the photos have come from subsequent trips to Jamaica and abroad. All told, the book is a lifetime in the making. Still, Simon says, it all came together too quickly for his liking.
"Well, it all had to be done really fast, unfortunately," Simon says, speaking from his home in Martha's Vineyard. "One of my misgivings was that I didn't get the go-ahead to do [the book] until a year ago. And so I went and got new material, and I was there about a week."
What works well is that Simon gets more than one shot at a lot of artists, and you're able to see many of them age as you turn the page. The authors get additional help from photographer Roy Sweetland, who spends a good deal of time in Miami these days, and Molli Fire, who contributes informative text about dancehall and the passa-passa street culture that has emerged over the past 15 years. Simon is by no means the world's biggest dancehall fan. When asked what impressed him most about reggae's more upbeat offspring during the making of this book, his answer is telling: "How much I hate it." He laughs before explaining that to him, the music is quite often homophobic and nearsighted. But he's also certain of dancehall's importance.
"It's not my style," he says. "The kids love it. It's by far the most popular music right now, and we knew that we had to include it." But he did learn a few things about dancehall that come out during the conversation. "I noticed there are younger artists who are making a difference... I-Wayne, Queen Ifrica, Tarrus Riley, Lutan Fyah [all featured in the book], and they're starting to turn things around."