“Mick sees me the way I see myself,” said David Bowie to his manager after a young British photographer named Mick Rock shot an early session with him. It was that verdict that launched Rock as not only a viable rock photographer but as Bowie’s “official photographer” between 1972 and 1973. To celebrate that transcendent moment of Bowie’s career, and the guy who did the most to record it for posterity, Taschen has just released one of its signature weighty tomes — definitive, smartly designed (including a box), and gorgeously printed — with a limited edition of 1972 copies co-signed and blessed by Bowie himself. The accompanying exhibition at Taschen Gallery in West Hollywood opened recently with great fanfare, and many of Rock’s notable friends attended. Nothing having to do with David Bowie comes without raucous hallelujahs, and the packed vernissage rocked despite the record LA heat wave.
Was it harmonic fate, or was Mick Rock a handle invented to brand the coveted job of chronicling Bowie’s pyrotechnic ascendancy? Unlikely as it seems, that’s the name Michael Rock has had from a tender age. Though Rock was an ardent rock fan to begin with, he began in pursuit of a literary vocation, enamored with the mad visions of the British Romantics, the French Symbolists, and the American Beats (all of whose potions he would later detect in Bowie’s output). But on an acid trip while studying at Cambridge, he picked up a camera and shot images of a pretty girl’s face as it morphed through many hallucinated forms. It was later revealed that the camera had had no film in it, but Rock was hooked. It helped that he was pals with Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd and snapped shots of him, including a now famous photo of Barrett reclining on the hood of a classic Pontiac convertible in the autumn of 1969. It was the first time, says Rock, that he “channeled resonance” through a lens — charisma in a bottle.
It also helped that Rock starting shooting at a seismic fracture in cultural history. Late-1960s, early 1970s was no doubt a wild music ride — with the no-holds-barred sex-drugs-rock ’n’ roll revolution in full swing. When Bowie arrived on the scene, many were bored with the hippy dippy “good vibe” wave, looking for something more darkly decadent and subterranean. The Ziggy Stardust phenomenon that Rock captured made it clear that Bowie was not just another strutting showman but a camp conceptualist who understood the power of visuals (costume, makeup, and stagecraft) to make rock an ecstatic theatrical experience that made you think. He also grasped the evolving nuances of pop identity, shape-shifting through as many guises as there are albums in his discography. This made him a magical creature to a young photographer who has confessed he would not have chosen image over word if it weren’t for the magnetic personalities who were making the music of the day. “I identified so heavily with those guys. These were all wild underground characters, and I was responding to the character, and my loyalty was totally with them — fuck the magazines and the record labels.”
As Rock says, the world wasn’t quite clamoring for Bowie when they first met.
I was lucky, or you might say I was intuitive, to connect with him early on and appreciate his visionary qualities. The photographers would go where the hard meat was, that they could sell. There was no guarantee [with Bowie] then, even with the way he looked. Of course, most of those music magazines were not in color either.
While photographing, Rock also made extra money writing about rockers on their way up — Bowie, Barrett, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Freddie Mercury, and a few now only vaguely recognized outside of the UK.
But of course the photography throttled all the literary stuff and just took over. The thing about photography is you don’t have to sit around all the time. That was what I liked best about it — I could run around and be a bit rambunctious. I still like that part of it most.
Nothing better describes his distinctive mode of rock iconography than his own streetwise adjective: “bouncey-bouncey.”
As has often been noted, Bowie was adept at fusing his private and public selves. “There was a moment when I don’t think he knew the difference,” says Rock. Only someone who inhabited the superstar’s inner sanctum would know that. That intimate vantage electrifies the entire portfolio — a cavalcade of ringside mid-play images that fully telegraph Bowie’s preternatural choreography, nervy pansexual costuming, and wraithlike physicality. As a whole, the works lock onto Bowie’s unique blend of perversity, wit, and quicksilver imagination. Owing to his early literary immersion, Rock also was able to see past Bowie’s shock and awe to his stylish lyrics, and thus understand his omnivorous approach, through the prism of Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Burroughs, Coleridge, and other poètes maudits — “a right bunch of scalawags!” What’s most evident in Rock’s pictures is how much he not only admired David Bowie and his inner circle (particularly Lou Reed and Iggy Pop) but also loved them as kindred spirits.
Mick Rock. The Rise of David Bowie (1972–1973), by Mick Rock (Taschen Books). Select photographs from the book are on view at Taschen Gallery, Los Angeles, through October 11.
More from the Photographer Spotlight Series: