“Nowadays, all my wildness goes into my photo sessions,” says Mick Rock, a trace wistfully. The young Brit who three decades ago photographed David Bowie while in an acid haze is now a 53-year-old resident of Staten Island, N.Y., a husband, a father of a 13-year-old, and a practitioner of yoga and meditation. Talk about ch-ch-ch-changes.
But don’t cue the smooth jazz and fire up the golf cart just yet. Rock may be famous for being the guy who shot the covers of Lou Reed’s Transformer and the Stooges’ Raw Power albums. And, yes, he took all those classic Bowie pictures. But he’s also the man Vanity Fair hired to photograph modern-day rockers the Yeah Yeah Yeahs for its May issue. Rock has “a perspective on shooting bands that is hard to match,” says Kathryne Hall, who is the magazine’s photo department coordinator and was the producer on that shoot.
And since rock is in the midst of a revival, well, so is Rock. Besides photographing acts like the Music and Supergrass, he did an eight-page spread for The New York Times Magazine this past April with the band Third Eye Blind and actress Asia Argento, as well as the cover of Bathroom Wall, the debut album by Saturday Night Live’s Jimmy Fallon.
He’s even seeing a bit of ad action. Rock was hired to do a European campaign for Tommy Hilfiger in 2001 and just shot an assignment for Jaguar, which is sponsoring an exhibition of his photos in Tokyo in July. “I’m really getting a serious second bite at the apple, which doesn’t happen so often,” says Rock, with characteristic self-deprecation and not a little awe.
As a lad at Cambridge, Michael David Rock was fascinated by the Symbolist poets—Rimbaud, Mallarme, et al—and by their mad love of “gobbling down great gobs of hashish and glugging down absinthe.” Thus began his interest in “open states,” or the altering of one’s senses by means that are not entirely legal and are most certainly perilous to the body. It was in such a state that he began taking photographs. He was 19, though it’s hard to say for sure. “I was on an acid trip when I picked up a camera,” he recalls.
From the start, Rock shot a lot of musicians—on stage, backstage, and at parties. One of those musicians was David Bowie. Weeks after he met the androgynous singer, in 1972, Rock was asked by a friend at British magazine to photograph him. Rock showed up for the shoot tripping on acid and not having eaten or slept in three days. “I was very spaced out,” says Rock, who believes that his spacey oddness informed the photographs. “It has a slightly metaphysical effect on the film,” he says.
That same year, Bowie released The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, which made him a star on both sides of the pond—and made Rock a star photographer. His life back then, Rock says, was “a continual photo session.” By the 1980s, he’d burned out. “I had acquired a bigger overhead, materially as well as, you might say, chemically,” Rock says. In a turn of events straight out of Behind the Music—a show Rock likes to watch because it’s often about old friends—he had a breakdown, or, as he puts it, “my own personal Armageddon.” And then six years ago, he had quadruple bypass surgery.
Now his chief vice is the super-caffeinated beverage Red Bull, and he meditates and does a mixture of kundalini and hatha yoga every day. Though he can still be “very unusual” on a shoot, says Vanity Fair’s Hall. “He drank Vitamin Water and Red Bull the entire time, paused to do yoga while shooting, and made a point of greeting everyone, even the interns,” she relates by email. But she adds, “He is very focused while shooting, and if the band was doing something he liked, he would shout ‘Yes! More!’”
Just as Rock is different from his 1970s incarnation, so is the music business—with publicists carefully managing their clients’ images and hype-happy media outlets building up artists one moment and nurturing backlash against those same acts the next. “Things are much more controlled nowadays,” says Rock. “There’s much more at stake. I don’t know that someone could run as loose and wild as I did.”
Which leads us to the issue of timing. Because as even Rock will tell you, timing is on his side. “‘In a sense, you have been lucky,’” the photographer says he reminds himself. “‘You have also been tenacious and intuitive.’” And others agree. “He was very lucky being in the right place at the right time, grabbing a lot of photos that we all look back on as iconic,” says Adrian Cross, founder and creative director of Axorama, the London ad agency for which Rock shot the Hilfiger campaign.
But it’s almost too easy to conclude that Rock owes his career to luck alone. Thanks to his experiences in rock’s unpredictable early days, “he sees opportunities where you can pull down rare instances” when he shoots now, says Cross.
Rock has also benefited from an even rarer gift: loyalty. “I have been loyal to the legacy of the people I’ve photographed. My relationship was not with the press,” he says. Maybe that’s why his subjects agree to collaborate with him on his book projects, which include last year’s Moonage Daydream: The Life and Times of Ziggy Stardust. Bowie wrote a 15,000-word essay for the editioned affair (the deluxe version retails for $750).
Rock’s also got books on Reed, Queen, and Blondie in the works. But he’s equally energized about working with younger acts, just as they are thrilled to be photographed by the person who documented their heroes’ early days. Hall says the Yeah Yeah Yeahs specifically requested Rock for their shoot.
“Part of the initial seduction is that they like to be around [someone from that era]. They want to know about it,” Rock says. “But, of course, if I couldn’t deliver, all that would be a cup of tea after school.”
(Published in PDN, 2002.)