It’s said that the northern Irish writer Nik Cohn – author of essential 1969 pop tome, Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom – was the first writer to write like pop music actually sounded. Visceral. Breathless. Sexy. You can make a similar case for the photography of Mick Rock, who has died, aged 72, at his home in Staten Island, New York City. His colour-saturated photos encapsulated the moments that define our music culture and that portray pop in its most orgasmic glory.
The photos that Rock took adorn the sleeves of rock’s most important records; Lou Reed’s ‘Transformer’, The Stooges ‘Raw Power’, ‘Pin Ups’ by David Bowie. Perhaps the Thin White Duke put it best when he described the Hammersmith-born photographer “the man that shot the ’70s.” Rock served as Bowie’s official photographer between 1972 and 1973, thereby being on hand to document the precise moment that the singer mutated into Ziggy Stardust, like a cicada emerging from the underground.
Not that Rock ever took credit for storyboarding his subjects’ aesthetic. He just had an uncanny way of knowing where to be and what buttons to press – and not just on his camera. “I was good at synthesizing and capturing what he was doing,” he told the BBC of his time in the orbit of the ascending Bowie. “I helped him with the propaganda, but the image and style of Ziggy Stardust was entirely David.” There may be some modesty at play here; Rock produced and directed music videos for the classic Bowie songs ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’, ‘The Jean Genie’, ‘Space Oddity’ and ‘Life On Mars’.
Unquestionably the pair were good for each other. A shot of Bowie replicating fellatio on guitarist Mick Ronson’s instrument lit a fuse under their respective careers. “It was an image that really got around, especially when it got to America,” he said of the iconic shot, taken at the Oxford Town Hall in June 1972. “David would talk about being bisexual and would put on lipstick and drive people crazy. Mick [Ronson] wasn’t gay and the photo isn’t meant to suggest they had a thing, David was just trying to bite Mick’s guitar. For the first time people started to ask, ‘Who took this picture?’”
His relationship with Bowie kept on giving. Through him he met Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, who in turn introduced him to Blondie’s Debbie Harry, The Ramones, even Andy Warhol – who he would photograph, alongside Truman Capote, dressed as Father Christmas. Right place. Right time. Luck or a skill? “[My work] is more of an intuitive thing rather than a heavily pre-designed thing” he said of his output. “I am in the business of evoking the aura of the people and photographing. I’m not necessarily looking for a literal reality, I’m looking for something that’s got a bit of magic to it, and quite where that comes from or when that moment is you can’t prescribe.”
Rock had got his first break at university in Cambridge. Here, studying medieval and modern languages, a thirst for 19th century poetry and the work of Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Shelley and Byron schooled him early in decadence, beauty and excess. Again he found himself in the right place. In Cambridge he met the local Syd Barrett, soon to form Pink Floyd, and the polymath Chris Jagger, younger brother of the much better-known Mick. As the sixties approached the seventies, he picked up a camera during an acid trip, later learning that the device contained no film inside. “My first lesson,” he said. “It was an accident that I became a photographer. It was a way of putting off getting a real job.”
The seventies saw him shoot Barrett’s ‘The Madcap Laughs’ – his first post-Floyd material and Rock’s first album credit – and in 1974 the cover of Queen’s ‘Queen II’, later recreated for the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ video. In the middle of the decade his talents extended to serving as the chief photographer on The Rocky Horror Picture Show – his delicious photos of Tim Curry as Dr. Frank-N-Furter forever top of the pile in his portfolio. If you wanted the essence of extremity captured on film, Rock was the number to call. Until Rock’s own relationship with excess became uneven, and the phone stopped calling for almost a decade.
“I was broke, and being broke is not fun, especially with a serious cocaine habit,” he said of the nineties. “I had the IRS up my ass, I had a child, I owned nothing, I was in debt, and I got a messy reputation because of my habit. The quality of my photography didn’t suffer, but I became less and less reliable in terms of delivery times. Eventually, the phone stopped ringing.”
He underwent a quadruple heart bypass paid for by Rolling Stones managers Allen Klein and Andrew Loog Oldham. A kidney transplant too. A change of lifestyle – yoga and meditation in, class As out – and the renewed appreciation of rock’s glam heyday heralded by a new rock revolution led by The Strokes, led to a career rebirth at the dawn of the millennium. The list of iconic creatives who requested his services cascaded there on; Daft Punk, The Killers, Miley Cyrus, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Michael Stipe, Lady Gaga. All were captured on Rock’s film.
The idea of Rock’s passing being met with great sorrow sits uneasily with the spirit in which he lived his life and created his art. “Let us not mourn the loss, but instead celebrate the fabulous life and extraordinary career of Michael David Rock,” read the Rock family statement that accompanied news of his passing. Mick Rock took photos of rock and pop stars, but really, he took photos of life at the sharp end. In doing so, he changed the vision of sound forever.