ROCK AND ROLL WILL NEVER DIE
A Conversation with Legendary Rock Photographer MICK ROCK
By Lori Zimmer
Mick Rock is the man responsible for preserving the glamour, guts and sexual energy that was part and parcel with rock n roll in the ’70s and ’80s. With his camera, Rock captured Iggy Pop’s cosmic back bends, a thickly kohl-eyed Syd Barrett in his living room, a very young Debbie Harry, and dozens of intimate tour moments with David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust.
The photos are older than me, but they seem new. The glam rock style is still influencing fashion today, thanks in large part to Rock’s epic catalogue of work that went beyond the average rock show documentation, and instead captured snippets of the real lives of rock n roll legends.
It wasn’t just about snapping the perfect image at the decisive moment. Rock’s images are so powerful because they convey a glimpse into the private lives of musicians that have shaped music today, in a time when music was everything (more than just something to download).
Not to discount the talented musicians of today, but the rock n roll of Rock’s time had the inherent electric energy that only revolution can bring, a new movement that, without the immediate accessibility of today’s world, had a magic to all of those involved. From fans to Bowie, Lou Reed, Queen and the Sex Pistols themselves, music felt like being a part of something special, that only others “in the know” were a part of too.
Today, Rock continues to photograph the music industry’s edgiest, including The Misfits, Lady Gaga, Snoop Dogg, The Black Keys, Peaches, Daft Punk and, of course, the legends from the past. With a series of books of his classic photographs, Rock also has crafted a collection of digitally colorized images, which he has exhibited in galleries around the world.
Lori Zimmer: For your latest show, “Rock Legends,” you’ve stepped outside of straight photography and transformed your imagery into colorful pieces that feel like a fusion of Pop Art, Infrared film, and an acid trip. Other artists, such as Shepard Fairey, make their living my appropriating others’ images. What inspired you to manipulate your own?
Mick Rock: I’ve been playing around with my photos since the mid-eighties, so this is really nothing new for me. I’m lucky, you might say, because I have a wealth of my own images at my disposal, so I’ve never needed to help myself to images that originated with others. It started in a fallow shooting period, when I got curious about the possibilities of deconstructing and reconfiguring my images, and I found a new excitement in viewing myself as an artist rather than simply a photographer. I was energized by this different process for producing imagery. I could do it in my own time and space and follow the muse of the moment in a purely spontaneous way. Over the years I developed a body of work, and finally I felt ready to parade this other aspect of my creativity in a public forum.
LZ: You used to do both photography and interviews of the musicians you worked with, do you ever miss the literary aspect?
MR: I still write on occasion, mostly for my own books (which are, of course, essentially photo collections). I have been commissioned to write a couple of introductions for other works too in recent years. But writing requires me to remain sitting in one place for extended periods of time and I’m not really comfortable with that. I like to be in motion, and photography and my photo art satisfy that need in my nervous system. My grandmother used to say I was like “a blue-arsed fly, you won’t sit still for a moment!”
LZ: With the influx of the internet, the music industry has changed a lot–albums have turned into MP3s and Spotify, magazines have turned into blogs. St. Marks has a Super Cuts, CBGBs is an expensive jeans store, and the Mars Bar is a hole in the ground. Do you think rock is dead?
MR: It’s obviously not the prime musical mover of the younger generation. My 22-year-old daughter has long been extolling the virtues of the modern DJ to me: Deadmau5 (whom I have photographed), Skrillex, Swedish House Mafia, etc. “They’re the new rock stars,” has long been her chant. She thinks that both rock and rap are past their prime–and she may be right. I’m not sure that rock is yet quite moribund although it has been a while since it reinvented itself the way it was so often able to. Although there are some acts that have shown up in the new millennium that I like: The YeahYeahYeahs, The Killers, Kasabian, The Scissor Sisters, The Black Keys. So there is still some life yet in that ancient and worthy genre!
LZ: You may have become defined by shooting and traveling with David Bowie, but he was also immortalized thanks to you. Do you feel your work has had a role in his rise to fame?
MR: I think that I had my role to play, but David would have made it without any help from me or anyone else. Such an amazing talent and visionary. The man who had everything. And my association with him was certainly helpful to me. ‘Nuff said!
LZ: We know you’ve shot the legends (almost every musician who ever matters over the last 40 years). Who have you shot in recent years that you feel has that same rock star edge that the legends of the ’70s had?
MR: There’s a couple of acts that I’ve shot in recent times that fuse rock, rap, dance and even some DJ, that I think have great creativity and star power and photogeneity, not to mention certainly intelligence in the way they handle themselves: Janelle Monae and Theophilus London. They are both heavily on the rise and have great futures, no doubt. To me they have the potential to rank with any rock stars in size of audience and influence.
LZ: You’ve been quoted saying that Debbie Harry is one of your favorite subjects to photograph–how did you start shooting Blondie? Do you still photograph Debbie?
MR: I haven’t photographed her in a while, although I’d be happy to if the occasion arose. As I recall I first shot her in 1978 for a fashion magazine that went under soon after the session, called Viva. So the magazine didn’t have the opportunity to publish the photos. But some 18 months later, one of the photos appeared on the front cover of Penthouse Magazine. And the beautiful irony of that very sexy shot was that she was clothed in black up to her neck! With a face like that she didn’t need to take off her clothes!
Mick Rock is a New York City based British photographer. He has been known as “The Man Who Shot the 70s” after going on tour with David Bowie and other legends.
Written by Lori Zimmer
Photography by Coco Alexander
Design by Marie Havens
Mick Rock at his exhibition space, NYC, April 2012, Photography by Coco Alexander