Dennis Morris

Young Gun, Hackney

1969, printed 2012

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View this artwork by appointment, at Tate Britain's Prints and Drawings Rooms

Dennis Morris
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Image: 275 x 405 mm
Gift Eric and Louise Franck London Collection 2016


Young Gun, Hackney 1969 is a black and white photograph taken in London by Jamaican-born British photographer Dennis Morris when he was just nine years old. The photograph portrays a young boy wearing a balaclava and holding a gun. The balaclava is striped, with a pompom at the top, while the seemingly young age of the boy indicates that he might be playing. Nonetheless, the gun that dominates the image is very realistic and the boy’s index finger is on the trigger, apparently ready to shoot. The image is disquieting in conveying a sense of both violence and play. In the context of its times it speaks of young black people angered by a society that did not seem to know how to, or want to, include them in its system, and of growing up in an age of confrontation, defined by racism and segregation on one side and growing black consciousness on the other.

Morris learned photography at an early age in north London, his family having settled there when he was a young child. He attended the photographic club for the St Marks Church choirboys set up by Donald Paterson, a wealthy and philanthropic man who had developed some important new photographic technology. As a result many of Morris’s subjects in the 1960s and early 1970s were other children from his neighbourhood, as well as his local community. Unsurprisingly in these photographs there is not a sense of an outsider looking in, but a matter-of-fact and yet compassionate gaze.

Works such as Brother Can You Spare Some Change? Sandringham Road, Dalston, Hackney 1976 (Tate P14372) and ‘Mother’s Pride’, Hackney 1976 (Tate P14373) are two of the many photographs that the teenage Morris took of his neighbourhood in Dalston, in north-east London, in the mid-1970s. Many, including Brother Can You Spare Some Change, show the urban environment in a state of destruction. Commenting on the time this picture was taken, Morris has stated: ‘Many houses were being pulled down and, with them, the community. The houses were replaced by flats; it was a new era.’ (Dennis Morris, ‘Neighbourhood’, in Morris 2012, p.74). This was a tumultuous time for the newly forming black diaspora communities in London; the cultural theorist Stuart Hall has written that it ‘witnessed the birth, at the very heart of “the old country”, of “colony society”, with its typical inner-city, bombed-out and abandoned wasteland locations and scenarios, its physical and social deprivations in housing and living conditions, its indignities, casual violence and degrading humiliation’. (Stuart Hall, ‘“Speak Easy”: Black in the ’70s’, in Morris 2012, p.5.)

The art historian Kobena Mercer has described Morris’s neighbourhood pictures as offering new insight into the narrative of the transition between first and second generation immigrants into Britain (Kobena Mercer, ‘Funky London Childhood’, in ibid., pp.14–15). They document the circumstances of poverty, but also the rise of a sense of belonging, despite the harsh reality of discrimination whereby one was not an equal citizen but a guest. Yet, the writer Gary Younge has argued, in his photographs Morris empowered the communities he documented and ‘transforms black Britons from objects to subjects, and from recipients of hospitality to cultural agents’ (Gary Younge, ‘The Way We See’, in ibid., p.11).

This print was made by the artist in 2012 and is signed, verso, in ink. It was formerly in the Eric and Louise Franck Collection, London.

Further reading
Dennis Morris, Dennis Morris, Growing Up Black, London 2012.

Elena Crippa
April 2016

Film and audio


Dennis Morris: 'Photography gave me confidence'

The photographer recalls how a chance meeting with Bob Marley launched his career

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