Rock Photographer Mick Rock

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Rock Photographer Mick Rock Mick Rock (Photograph by Nathalie Rock)

The Man Who Shot the Seventies 

Born in 1948 in London, England, Mick Rock is an acclaimed British photographer known for his iconic shots of David Bowie, Queen, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Syd Barrett, the Sex Pistols and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, with recent subjects including Lady Gaga, Snoop Dogg, Pharrell Williams, Jimmy Fallon, Daft Punk and The Black Keys. His 2003 retrospective exhibition of 186 prints at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography was described in the Japanese media as “one of the finest collections of pop art to ever reach these shores.” He was known as David Bowie’s official photographer, and his newest publication by Taschen, The Rise of David Bowie 1972-1973, will be available in September 2015. In August 2015, he began hosting his own TV show On the Record with Mick Rock on the Ovation Channel. Tokyo Journal’s Executive Editor Anthony Al-Jamie rapped with Mick Rock about his four decades of memorable musical imagery.

TJ: First of all, can you tell us what your real name is?
ROCK: My real last name is Rock! If I have a gimmick, it’s that Mick Rock is my real name: Michael David Rock.

TJ: Before we talk about your rock photography, can you tell us about your kabuki pictures?
ROCK: In 2003, I did an exhibition at the Metropolitan Exhibition of Photography in Tokyo. Before I headed back to New York, they wanted to do something else with me. I said, “I want to see some kabuki theater,” so they introduced me to Kanzaburo Nakamura. They invited me to spend a few days photographing him at rehearsal, backstage, in preparation, makeup, performance… everything! The following year, I did a big exhibition there and Kanzaburo and I did a couple of books called Tamashii. I love Japan and Tokyo. I’m a big fan. Very early on, a guy called Lindsay Kemp tutored David Bowie in mime and turned him [and me] onto noh and kabuki theater. That was why I was very keen to shoot it. All the dressing up and the themes — sex, drugs, murder, betrayal — that go on in kabuki theater, it’s totally rock and roll.

TJ: What do you like about Japan?
ROCK: I have been there probably about five times. The first thing I noticed [about Tokyo] was how little rubbish there was on the street. I’ve never been to a city that’s so clean. My first wife was Japanese-American. I had a couple of other Japanese girlfriends, so the ladies I also find very attractive. [In] Tokyo, there is an amazing blend of the futuristic and traditional. There are all these modern shops and buildings, and then you go around the back streets and you find all this traditional stuff. I do love Japanese temples. I remember going to Kyoto, meditating [at the foot of some mountains] and that was a fantastic experience.

TJ: I understand you studied at the University of Cambridge. What did you study?
ROCK: Modern languages and literature. I have my degree. It’s an honorary thing. So I even got my degree despite all of the LSD. LSD was the reason why I picked up a camera. I was on an acid trip in a friend’s room in college in Cambridge with this young lady. I couldn’t afford a camera but he was from a wealthy family and he had a couple of cameras. I picked one up and started to play. Every time I pressed the shutter “Pyuuu... pyuuu... pyuuu...” Dramatic explosions would change what I was looking at every time I clicked it. So that connection was very important for me. I just got curious about it. There was actually no film in the camera, but I didn’t know. One, I was high as a kite, and two, I didn’t know about the tension that you would feel when you use film as you are winding it.

Rocky Horror1974(c)MickRock.jpgQueen2CoverLondon1974(c)MickRock.jpg

"All the dressing up and the themes — sex, drugs, murder, betrayal — that go on in kabuki theater, it’s totally rock and roll."

TJ: How have rock photography and the music industry changed over the years?
ROCK: Nobody in the music business got paid much money as a photographer. The record labels didn’t give a damn about the copyright of the images when they used them. at meant that all the photographers from that period own the copyright. There are limitations to the control of the copyright in that I only have the rights to do editorial or art. Editorial means documentaries, news... but what we can’t do is merchandise or advertise without the cooperation of the subjects. I always go to [the artists]. They always work it out and I split the money with them. I know a lot more about business these days than I ever did years ago. I think it was the last thing on our minds. Nowadays, sessions tend to be a bit more of a production because that’s the modern way. The interesting thing about those early years is that nobody had a stylist. They were all self-styled. Maybe they’d get someone to make a special costume for them. David [Bowie] certainly did. It wasn’t somebody coming in and imposing a fashion look on them. Like Iggy in the silver trousers and the silver boots, that was all Iggy. And Lou [Reed], the way he would dress... was Lou. Freddie [Mercury] got Zandra Rhodes to make certain special costumes, but they were his ideas. Also, everyone was young. We were in our teens or late teens or early 20s when we started out. George Harrison was too young to sign a contract. The original manager/producer of the Rolling Stones, Andrew Loog Oldham, was 19 when that rst Stones album came out. Those were the days when anybody over 30 was regarded as being the enemy. There are no secrets nowadays as there were back then... everything is out there. Take people like David Bowie and Lou Reed and Syd Barrett, for instance... You could build an aura. You didn’t know too much about any of these people. Whereas nowadays, the door is thrown wide open. The minute you pop up, you’re everywhere in no time.

TJ: What do you think about the comparisons people make between your photography and that of Bob Gruen?
ROCK: We cross over a bit in certain areas, but we are very, very different as photographers. I think Bob is closer to being a photojournalist than I am. And he’s very good at it. Over the years I’ve traveled with Bowie, Lou Reed, Queen and in Lizzy, and I do have some famous party photos, but what I love to do most of all is choreograph a session. What I’ve done a lot more over the past 25 years is set up an act or person in studios, locations, hotels or wherever. It’s nice for me and Bob now. We both had our crazy years and the down years. I said to him the other day when we did this talk at the Ace Hotel in London, “What’s our biggest achievement, Bob?” We both said the same thing, “We’re still here!”

TJ: What is the key to your longevity in the business?
ROCK: 18 years ago I stopped my chemical years. I had a quadruple heart bypass surgery, which is the worst thing and the best thing that ever happened to me, and I’ve done yoga for over 40 years, even during the chemical years. I get massages all the time. I meditate. It’s that, photography, my wife and daughter.

TJ: Why was your heart attack one of the best things that ever happened to you?
ROCK: It cleaned me up completely. It stopped all that nonsense and it cleared up my head. Even though I... always [took] pictures, my life was pretty chaotic at the time. I was in debt and I didn’t have a house anymore. I was able to put my life back together completely, and 18 years later, it’s amazing what’s going on for me. And I still shoot! at’s important for me. I’m sure it’s important for Bob, too.

TJ: Is there someone you wish you would have shot who’s gone?
ROCK: Al Wertheimer. He took all those great photos of Elvis Presley before the controls were in place... the shots of him reading newspapers or laying on a couch or sleeping, or the one where he is tongue kissing that girl that’s so famous. I would have loved to have shot Elvis at that point before he got too homogenized. Certainly Bob Dylan in his speed period and his Blonde on Blonde period and his Like a Rolling Stone period with that shock of hair, the shades, the skinny trousers. And probably Keith Richards at the time of Altamont, when at that moment in time he looked more rock and roll than probably anyone ever did and has done in the history of rock and roll. I would have loved to have photographed John Lennon. Twice I met him and the one time I did have a camera in my hand I felt a little bit intimidated. I thought, “Hmm... I don’t think I should take the liberty of just grabbing a shot,” so I didn’t. Bob knew him intimately and he’s still friends with Yoko.

TJ: Is there someone alive today that you would like to shoot?
ROCK: I’d shoot Beyoncé in a shot. at’s a huge challenge. And Jay-Z or people like Skrillex.

TJ: Do you think personality has a lot to do with your success? You seem to be able to relate to people pretty quickly.
ROCK: Well, I enjoy what I do. I enjoy that pocket that I get into and it doesn’t matter who I’m going to shoot. I think partly because I always do a big yoga workout before I do a session. I do meditation and I’ll have a cup of coffee and two puffs and I’m totally ready. I think I’m very open to the circumstances, but it’s a process that I go through that opens me up. I feel at some points in the session I’m an instrument. I’m like a receiver. I’m not even really taking the pictures. The pictures are taking themselves... and I don’t question it. I think what is important is to stay away from intellectualizing photography or intellectualizing what I do. If you ask me what makes a great photograph, I know it when I see it. I can’t tell you why. You can point out a couple of things. There may be this or there may be that. But those are maybe things you can say about any photograph.

TJ: Do you know when you’ve taken a great photo?
ROCK: I might not know the specific frame, but I know when something special has happened, yes. But that quite often happens, not just once in a session. I know when I feel a certain energy and know when the focus is deep... the focus of the symbiosis... the focus of the communication... the focus of the energy is right there, which means me and the subject... and the atmosphere that we are working in.

TJ: Tell me about your current projects.
ROCK: People are talking to me about doing a Freddie Mercury book. But what I really want to do is a cat book, believe it or not. I have a big collection of cat photographs. Besides the documentaries being made about me, these people want to produce a big touring museum show about the history of rock and roll. My work is the basis and they are also enlisting me to get some of my friends on board. I have someone that wants me to do a film project based around my relationship with Syd Barrett. They liked the idea of the times, the way the culture was changing in the late ‘60s, the fact that we were all so young, the fact that I had this relationship with Syd, and that it was this unique, almost mystical thing because people know so little about him. Of course, Pink Floyd became such a massive deal and Syd was the man who started it all.

TJ: Can you tell me what Freddie Mercury was like?
ROCK: He was a sweet guy. Above all he was really a genuinely nice person. He was a very honest and sincere person. He was a little bit wary of the media. He wasn’t like Lou [Reed], who was a little bit naughty and aggressive with the media (laughs). He was a sweet, warm human being and he loved being a huge star. What is interesting is... as big as obviously the Beatles and this and that are, someone tipped me that the biggest stars ever in Japan are David Bowie and Freddie Mercury. In some ways, what happened in Japan helped launch their careers in a big way worldwide.

TJ: Do you have any regrets looking back?
ROCK: Oh, there’s probably a million of them. I do regret the number of years I dabbled around with chemicals because... even though I could always take a photograph, I was a bit of a human wrecking ball. I do regret maybe being uncaring here and there.

IggyPopRawPowerCover1972(c)MickRock.jpgTJ: I think some of your greatest shots are still to come.
ROCK: I feel the same! I’m just glad to have some relevance at the present, and I’m glad to still be alive and I’m glad to still be in decent health, notwithstanding the things I’ve been through, and in the end I’m grateful for the way things have turned out. I’m getting a huge resurgence going on, so I’m excited to be in the here and now. I’m grateful for the past I had because that fuels the here and now. I feel a certain humility about it. At my age I’m allowed to do this and I’m allowed to have this fun. I know that Bob feels the same. I know he’s had his rough periods too, so I’m very happy for him as well. tj

The complete article is available in Issue #277. Click here to order from Amazon.

Written By:

Anthony Al-Jamie

Dr. Anthony Al-Jamie lived and worked as an educational administrator and journalist in Tokyo for over 20 years. His in-depth understanding of Japanese language and culture has allowed him to carry out interviews with many of the most renowned individuals in Japan. He first began writing for the Tokyo Journal in the 1990s as Education Editor, later he was promoted to Senior Editor, and eventually International Editor. He currently works in higher education publishing and serves the Tokyo Journal as Executive Editor.



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