A Greedy Eye: Mick Rock
The 1970s brought a paradigm shift to the musical landscape of rock and roll. The Summer of Love was over, The Beatles released their final album, and the entire idealistic aesthetic of the 60s had been transformed into a different kind of musical and social energy. The post-psychedelic art-rock scene gave birth to Glam Rock and artists like T. Rex, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Roxy Music, Queen and a handful of others began to hit their strides towards Icon status and, there, squarely in the middle of it all, “molest[ing] the cutting-edge of the 70’s”, as he put it, was photographer Mick Rock.
“My eye is a greedy eye, it’s always sucking up imagery. That’s what has always excited me. It all makes sense now. It was inevitable that photography would become the key to my life.”
Born Michael David Rock, Mick’s career as a rock and roll photographer began somewhat by accident amidst a drug-addled haze while he was a student, studying modern languages and literature at Cambridge. The story goes, that Rock and a blonde coed were “chemically inebriated” in a friend’s dorm room. This friend had a camera, which Rock picked up and began using to photograph the young lady. Days later, when Rock asked his friend after the photographs, it was revealed that the camera had no film in it, so nothing that Rock had “shot” was captured. What was captured, however, was how Mick felt when the camera was in his hands and what he saw with his eye pressed to the viewfinder. It left such an impression, that he bought some film and recreated the entire evening, complete with the same young lady and the same chemical help.
Rock began shooting friends and local bands, earning a few pounds here and there; “better than getting a real job”, he said. A chance meeting in 1966 would be the event that ultimately changed the course of Rock’s life and career. It was at the Cambridge Arts College Christmas party where Rock’s friends introduced him to the music of Pink Floyd and, more importantly, “this amazing creature” called Syd Barrett. The two became fast friends, even sharing a flat together in London after Barrett left Pink Floyd. Rock photographed the cover and interior photos for Barrett’s solo album, The Madcap Laughs, which have become some of his most well-known photographs.
Rock continued shooting concerts, finding that he was inspired by the subjects and by the lifestyle, not necessarily by the photography. The pictures became almost a by-product of the experience, which would remain a constant throughout Rock’s career. His subjects became supporting characters in the theatre of the absurd that was his life and, in 1972, Rock’s cast of supporting players got their leading man, David Bowie. In Bowie, Rock had found his muse. Bowie had achieved success with Space Oddity and Hunky Dory, and, according to biographer David Buckley, was set to “challenge[ed] the core belief of rock music of the day.” Rock convinced the London editor of Rolling Stone to let him shoot a photo feature on Bowie. He couldn’t promise that Rock would get paid, or whether or not the piece would actually get published, but, to Rock, that didn’t matter. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars landed in 1972 and Mick Rock was there to photograph it. In addition to becoming Bowie’s official photographer, the two have remained friends and together have collaborated to produce some of the most iconic photographs of Bowie’s career.
With his career gaining momentum, Rock found himself traveling back and forth between the UK and America, where he was shooting bands like Blondie, The Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop and Joan Jett. In 1977, with his career in high-gear, he moved permanently to New York. Rock is quick to point out that serendipity played a large part in his success as a photographer. “I was intuitive and lucky to be around,” he says. “I also looked like them, and that made it easier to accept me.” If you watch any video of Mick Rock in action, you see immediately how much presence, how much energy he brings to a shoot. In between frames, he spins like a whirling dervish, as if recharging his dizzying enthusiasm before diving back into the shoot, camera clicking away, giggling and screaming obscenities, anything to get the shot. “It’s like sex”, Rock says. “You gotta make the most of it while it’s happening.”
Rock continued shooting throughout the 80s and 90s, though he backed away from shooting live performances and instead brought his rock and roll aesthetic into fashion, advertising, art direction, film and music videos. Rock teamed up with Barney Clay of the creators project for a re-imagining of his classic Life on Mars footage of David Bowie. Though he continued to burn the candle at both ends, the lifestyle caught up with him and, in 1996, Rock underwent a quadruple bypass He was 48. Rock says the bypass was a warning, “it was time to stop.” A career freelancer, Rock had no insurance and it was his friends that foot the bill to save his life. By the early 2000s, a newly sober Rock was determined to reinvent himself and has continued shooting clients like The Killers, Michael Stipe, Kate Moss and The Black Keys to name just a few. in 2003, the Tokyo Museum of Photography mounted a massive 186 print retrospective of Rock’s work (the only Rock and Roll photographer ever to be featured there), which the Japanese press called “one of the finest collections of pop art to ever reach these shores.” Rock has also had major exhibitions in London, Berlin, New York, Los Angeles, Oslo, Amsterdam and San Francisco.
Mick Rock has lived the life of the rock stars he photographs and has come out the other side as one of the most iconic, and sought after, photographers in the game. Though the partying has been replaced by yoga and the only drug he affords himself is coffee, he still brings the same exuberant energy to his shoots and loves the new crop of musicians and models he has the opportunity to work with. “I know it’s disappointing,” he says, “but all I am is a retired degenerate.” Not a bad life for someone whose Mum still occasionally asks when he’s going to get a real job.
BOOKS: Mick Rock