Talking to Mick Rock: The 'Guardian of David Bowie's Image'
The word “legend” is tossed around quite a bit. We use it to describe all-consuming figures like Beyoncé, and ‘90s archetypes like Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell. And indeed, these figures are legends in their own right. But even more legendary than them are the ones that came before, that broke down barriers and shattered molds, that sowed the seeds of a certain artistic ilk of defiance and subversion, upon which countless artists to come would build their careers and livelihoods. And no one did this better—no one did this more beautifully or more effortlessly—than David Bowie.
Everything Bowie did was unprecedented, and everything he did continues to heavily influence people our culture today. He is the patron saint of the artiste, the linchpin of so many artistic practices. Yet even Bowie might not have been the figure we know him to be today if not for a select few who greatly impacted his life and career—chief among them being Mick Rock.
While Rock was indeed one of Bowie’s foremost photographers, he was also so much more than that. He provided Bowie with the visual platform to exercise and showcase his many alter egos and, in doing so, nurtured and supported them as well. And while Bowie is certainly one of Rock’s most well known subjects, he by no means comprised all of them. Through Bowie, the British photographer was introduced to a cohort of other bona fide legends like Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Syd Barrett, and Freddie Mercury. He figured prominently in these guys’ lives during what was arguably the golden age of music (1972-1974). And, like most artists of his caliber, he’s only now, in later life, getting the full recognition he so rightfully deserves. A few months back, right around the time he released his book Mick Rock: The Rise of David Bowie, 1972-1973 with Taschen, Rock kindly invited a few on the Legs Media team and Milk’s former Editorial Director Paul Bui into his home for an intimate video interview.
For a glimpse into the mind of one of the most pivotal photographers of all time, watch some of the highlights from our interview above, and then read the interview in full below.
So I guess we could start with Bowie. How are you feeling about [his loss]?
Well I’ve had two friends that have died in the last couple of years, the first was Lou Reed, and now David Bowie, and I’ve known them both for over 40 years. They are amazing artists so it’s kind of a hole in a part of me. It’s certainly hard to believe that they’re both gone now, because they both were very important and influential in my life, in so many different ways. I learned from these guys, and I learned from shooting them. But I also love them, in the broader sense of the word—as artists and as friends.
I mean, we’re talking about a very cool human being who’s also a phenomenal artist, and even more than that—of course we’re talking about David now—his cultural influence has been huge, over and above and beyond the music and the art… He’s just David Jones from Brixton and yet he’s also been channeling this extraordinary talent.
Very early on in my life, before he was known—I mean he was known a bit, but there were 400 people at the first concert I saw…[it was] in the March of ’72, before the release of Ziggy Stardust—I saw this whole thing unfold in front of my lens. David was like a force of nature. But it comes in this very charming—not only charming but generous—package and he had a great sense of humor… He wasn’t a closed off person at all, he was very open and he was very encouraging… That didn’t just apply to me.
“They were not the very butch variety, shall we say. They were a finer sensibility, and of course, they were the future.”
People often ask if he had input on the pictures and I say, “Well, he presented himself, what else did he have to do, looking the way he did?” I can’t imagine if we [had] had [the] equipment [we have now] back in those days—we would’ve run amok, and of course the chemical intake would’ve upped the anti a little bit.
But I’ve had people ask me, “What’s your favorite picture?” It depends on my mood that particular day, the time of the year, or whether I’m having my period… Whatever influence David has had, nobody has been David. And he didn’t wear drag, although back in the day people would often call it drag rock. But David actually didn’t, he wore costume, that’s for sure… [And] Iggy was wild, but…these people…they were not the very butch variety, shall we say. They were a finer sensibility, and of course, they were the future.
You mentioned how everyone asks you about the Ziggy Stardust images that you’ve done. Why do you think that was such a game-changer at the time?
Well I’ll tell you one thing about the look of it: there’s so much variety. I mean, later on he would get into a look and that would be cool, and he would maintain that look. [But] in this 20-21 month period, I shot him actually—they’re not all in the book [Mick Rock: The Rise of David Bowie, 1972-1973] by any means—in 74 different outfits. So that made Gaga and Madonna look a little—well, shall we say, low-key, by comparison. May god bless them both—I notice it’s the girls that really took up that mantle…
[Bowie] learned from Lindsay Kemp, the great mime choreographer, who is also a dear friend of mine… You know it’s all about projection, costume, makeup. He learned about Kabuki theater, he learned about The Living Theatre, he learned about Marcel Marceau. Of course Lindsay couldn’t teach him anything about the music, but David would do music for some of Lindsay’s productions. [And Kemp] did tutor him in the arts of the presentation. Of course it became very important—the look of David and especially the look of this period has been huge in people’s minds… David in many ways did embrace it, but he also saw it as a means of breaking through, of cutting through, of enlarging his audience…. In those early small audiences, he was still giving big. But I mean, listen to Ziggy Stardust—he wasn’t even a star when he wrote and recorded that.
Maybe it did make a difference that I had studied modern languages and literature at Cambridge University, so I had that other sense of aesthetics… But I did see… people like Syd Barret, Bowie, Lou, Freddie Mercury, Bryan Ferry… I saw them as poets, in a sense—of course, they were poets, but they were more than that because they were also musicians.
People [have asked me], “Didn’t you want to be a fashion photographer?” I said, “Not really, I didn’t really want to be a photographer.” I was more interested in these crazy poets I read about and rock ‘n’ roll, and on an acid trip I picked up a friend’s camera and somehow, somehow… I think the day somebody stuck five pounds in my hand to shoot a local band in Cambridge, I thought, “You get paid for this stuff?”
So that was your first foray into photography?
On the acid trip with the blonde, yes… I kind of enjoyed the non-cerebral—I had a heavily cerebral British education, which culminated in the scholarship to Cambridge and what I learned there and through the LSD was to break down all these preconceptions and open myself up.
“I thought, ah—he must know that’s how people are treating it, and you know he would love it. ‘Me and Diana, paired together.’ He’d just adore that.
So what was it like having access at that time?
It was kind of organic; it’s not something I thought about. Through David, I met Lou I met Iggy… Lou is very important. He was very important to David too, he was very inspirational for David, and David always talked about the Velvet Underground… And [The Stooges music] was very aggressive. Which is what I loved and certainly what David loved. David would talk about it as being nihilistic rock—that’s what he loved about it. And of course later on in the ‘70s, he did a couple of albums with Iggy, and I’m sure “The Passenger” was written by both of them—I think it was. I mean he was always [up for it]. In all the albums, the music kept changing, he was infinitely curious.
I mean, look what he put out just before he died… I saw it before he died, and I’m sitting there going, “Whoa, he’s sending heavy messages.” I mean Lazarus is telling us something. “I’m in heaven.” I can’t watch it anymore; I can’t watch that video. David’s dying and I’m watching it—and he knows it, and he’s telling you about it. That’s an incredible piece of art… Friends of mine say that, in England, it’s a bit like the death of Diana, and I thought, ah—he must know that’s how people are treating it, and you know he would love it. “Me and Diana, paired together.” He’d just adore that.
He was a special person, and he had a special sensibility. And he knew camp—I mean, there is an art to camp; it’s not just silly behavior by people who wish they were gay. It was a lighter touch. Look at this shot on stage—Lou in Black and David in white… They were two sides of the same coin. See David’s had a bigger profile commercially, he had more success, but again, Lou was so radically uncompromising—not that he was a pauper by any means, although he was at this time. In fact, so was David; none of them had much money.
In terms of that era of music, how would you kind of contrast that to what’s going on today in music where people aren’t quite as spontaneous?
Well, I think, the first thing I have to say is it was a different world, different time… In the ‘70s, between this—and I shot a lot of punk too—it was like we were cultural revolutionaries. And that was exciting. I don’t know how that’s even possible today. Remember how little media there was, how few outlets there were for these pictures… Nowadays, you gotta make an impact of some sort with your first record—see, there was no impact back then… I don’t think anyone could be what those three were like, could have that impact because everyone’s kind of jaded. You know, Miley Cyrus goes out and does [stuff] and people are like, “Oooh oooh oooh!” But it’s just baby stuff, really. I think she’s very talented, but when people are like, “Oooooh what the fuck is she doing…?” It’s been going on for fucking years, it’s nothing new.
“And the other thing is, I wish he was fucking still alive, the bugger. It’s almost [like], David, you’re a very bad boy to take off like that.”
Do you want to talk a little about the show you’re going to have at Milk in October?
[It] consists of photos that I took of David Bowie in 2002, and it’s a great session. [It] produced that particular shot over there—amongst a lot of others—tons of which have never been seen… I mean I love it and David loved it. It’s the last studio session I ever did with him. That’s big. And I also have video of it, which is cool.
Is there anything about David that you think people would be surprised to hear?
Well for someone who had such an intense and long and very productive and very creative and very innovative career, he was a light spirit… He was beautiful—look, it’s not an opinion, that’s an empirical fact. That he was beautiful, as an object. So I could make so many great pictures, because they’re of him and because he could look very different… everybody knew that David was an artist, was innovative, but he did so much in this period to set up—you cant say a formula—but set up the patent that he would follow for the rest of his life. And the other thing is, I wish he was fucking still alive, the bugger. It’s almost [like], David, you’re a very bad boy to take off like that.
People would say, did he trust you? And well I assume he did. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything to betray his trust… To me, I regard myself as being one of the guardians of his image.
Creative Director: Paul Bui.
Director: Lewis Meyer-Peddireddy.
Editor: Katie Hickman.
Shot by: Jose Cota and Annabel Gonzales.
Audio by: Richard Cardone.
Music by: Massage.
Photos taken exclusively for Milk by Jenna Putnam.
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