With a name seemingly given to him by the gods of music themselves, Mick Rock is no stranger to the saints and sinners of music history. The British-born, New York–based photographer and director, whose career spans just shy of half a century, has collaborated with a who’s who of rock and roll mythology. His legendary album covers, including David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and Lou Reed’s Transformer, not to mention Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, as well as iconic images of the likes of Debbie Harry, Bryan Ferry, and Iggy Pop, to name just a limited few, have quite literally had a hand in shaping the legacy of rock music that is still felt today. Here, he discusses his long creative relationship with Bowie and Reed, his brush with death, and what it takes to capture the perfect image.
LOU REED, LONDON, 1976. PHOTOGRAPH ©MICK ROCK
I just finished watching Shot! again and I’m still delirious from all of the magic and sadness and beauty of it. After watching it, it struck me: I think one of the reasons why your photography is so important, now more than ever, is that it has a kind of “sacred” quality. Your images—and you—are a direct link to so many great artists who have since left us—David Bowie, Lou Reed, Freddie Mercury, Syd Barrett…
In the end, it turned out the game. Who knew. I mean, I didn’t have a clue. None of us did. The thing I like to remind people of is that, at the time, everyone was so young and it all happened so fast. The summer of ’72, that was a magical summer for me. And a lot of it revolved around David, and then Lou and Iggy by extension. David was the ringmaster. I mean, the day after the release of Ziggy Stardust, I was shooting him perform in front of his largest crowd at that time at the Oxford Town Hall.
You often remark how influential David was, not only to your career but for other musicians as well.
With all the charm that he had, all his brilliance, David got the best out of the people he worked with. And he helped put me on the map. Through him I met, well I met Lou and Iggy, and Lindsay Kemp.
IGGY POP ONSTAGE IN LONDON, 1972. PHOTOGRAPH ©MICK ROCK
In Shot! you describe your approach to photography as a process of “identification.” What do you mean by that?
Well, I think that I identify so much with the subjects. Doesn’t mean to say that I think I am them. I identify with them. I identify with their aura, or whatever you want to call it. Everybody has one, but some people, especially in performers and singers, they have it.
But then how do you capture it at that moment? It seems to me that it’s not about the studio. And it’s not about the lighting. There’s something else to it. What does it take? You’ve created some of the greatest, the most iconic images with artists of staggering talent and importance.
In those early years, I would just hang out. These people were my friends and we all just hung out. It was happening as I went along. I mean, look, I wasn’t a news photographer. I was this hippie student from Cambridge. I think they understood that I identified with them. But you know, I’ve never taken a picture without doing a yoga session beforehand. Even in the lunatic years. In fact, I still do ten-minute headstands as part of my warm-up routine. I don’t think there’s a picture I’ve taken since then that I didn’t do a yoga session beforehand. I learn to empty myself out so that when a subject is in front of me I can fill myself up completely with whatever it is I’m shooting. Even with a performance shot. Of course back in those days, especially with the people I shot, I could shoot the whole show.
Speaking of those early years, they were pretty much divided between London and New York City. How would you describe those two periods in your career?
The light and the dark.
DAVID BOWIE ON SET FOR THE VIDEO SHOOT OF 'LIFE ON MARS' IN LONDON, 1973. PHOTOGRAPH ©MICK ROCK
You came to New York to work with Lou after creating some truly iconic work with David. How would you describe the two of them, David and Lou?
What is it about them? To unravel that mystery. I know I was fascinated. For me it was a case of being fascinated. I have pictures from the “Friends of the Earth” concert at the Royal Festival in London in ’72. David’s dressed in white and Lou’s dressed in black. Sort of London, New York, that symbiosis, the light and the dark. Lou had developed this protective mechanism. David protected himself with charm. Of course, David worked the charmed route. Lou worked a more convoluted one. But they were two sides of the same coin. They really were.
If there are chapters to the life of Mick Rock, what’s important about 1996?
1996—that was the year the gods caught up with me.
I’d say. You almost died from a major heart attack.
I was not into alcohol and I was not into heroin. Certainly cocaine I had a huge appetite for. And a little bit of speed here and there too. Actually, I had taken some mushrooms just before I had my heart attack. When I stand back, I am thankful for having known so many of these characters and happy to be a guardian of what they did. God found a way to clean me up. He put his clammy paws on my shoulders and said, “Mick are you in or are you out? If you’re out, you ain't coming up here, Jack.” So I had to hang around and clean up a bit of my karma. I tell you, the most important thing for me when I got off that hospital wasn’t thinking about how big the past would get, rather how to get back to the present, to be relevant to it. That was actually the most important thing. Working, since then, with the likes of Janelle Monáe, Pharrell, Daft Punk, Nas, and, of course, Lana Del Rey.
DEBBIE HARRY, NYC, 1987. PHOTOGRAPH ©MICK ROCK
You’ve been described as the “King of Glam Rock Photography.” Is that a crown you happily wear?
I’ve tried to wear many crowns since then. Look, I loved the glam thing because I love beautiful things. I loved David and beautiful people. But I also shot a lot of punks, too. It wasn't just David and Lou and Iggy and stuff—there’s Debbie and Freddie and people even now that I’ve shot. However, there’s no doubt that David, Lou, Iggy—the terrible trio or the unholy trinity as I’ve dubbed them at different times over the years—those three, as a combination, their cultural influence has been massive. They changed how younger people saw the world.
Is there a person, living or dead, that you didn’t get in front of you that you would have loved to have photographed?
I remember the night I met John. I didn’t feel I could take my camera out and ask him if I could photograph him in yoga. I was in that moment very much like, “Oh my God this is John Lennon.”