by Howard Campbell
MIAMI – When Steve James was approached to show a segment of his extensive catalog at Art Basel in Miami December 5 -8, the Jamaican photographer went for something different. Some may consider it morbid.
James has covered the reggae beat for over 25 years, most of it at home. He has attended the funerals of many artists including Dennis Brown, Alton Ellis and Gregory Isaacs.
The Montego Bay-born James thought this would attract visitors to the annual event’s Let There Be Reggae which takes place at The Lab Miami (400 NW 26 Street) in trendy Wynwood December 5 – 6, with an opening reception from 6pm-10pm on December 5th.
“The memorial service segment is something that has never been done before and I thought it would be a very unique angle, so I pitched it to the exhibition’s curators,” he explained. “When I attended Dennis Brown’s funeral in 1999, I realized how many more interesting tidbits you can learn about a public figure when their tributes, personal anecdotes and eulogies are shared, so I began collecting the memorial service programs of all the reggae artists and others connected to the music industry ever since. I now have more than 40 in my possession, and they vary in shape, content and design.”
It was fellow Jamaican David Muir, an ace photographer and organizer of Art Basel, who approached James to present at the festival on December 5-6.
His display comprises 30 pieces that cover “the reggae and dancehall music scene through the lens of concert photography, musicians’ portraits, Rastafari culture, studio sessions and fashion.”
Considered an authority on British lovers rock reggae, James featured that sound and scene as a disc jockey on his Real Rock radio program on Bess FM in Jamaica. He showcased the music of Maxi Priest, Vivian Jones, Peter Hunnigale and Macka B.
James has also toured as an official photographer with Beres Hammond.
Most ‘reggae photographers’ over the years are American, including (the late) Diana Issachar and Kate Simon. Steve James says the gig has its ups and downs.
“Being a reggae photographer in Jamaica can be both exhilarating and challenging. The thrill of being immersed in such a vibrant aspect of our culture is always satisfying and that feeling never gets old, but sometimes the cost of equipment maintenance and constant upgrades can be an uphill battle,” he noted. “Other challenges include the lack of appreciation of the value of your work by some entities who do not want to compensate you appropriately or credit you for your images, which is equally important in today’s digital landscape.”