Mick Rock – ‘The Man Who Shot The Seventies’ – explains how to access the other-worldly, electromagnetic charisma of your subject
Type Mick Rock’s name into Google and you’re reliably informed that he’s ‘The Man Who Shot The Seventies’. While it makes a fine case for nominative determinism, looking at him – big-haired, beguiling, penchant for dark-tint shades – you can’t help but feel that even if he hadn’t been born with the name and title, young Mick would have always found rock and roll eventually.
Having first picked up the camera (mid-LSD trip) as a student, the British photographer went on to capture the likes of Bowie, Barrett, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed et al in a career spanning far longer than the decade search engines rank him synonymous with. Be it his masterminding of the hazy deformity behind Reed’s Transformer cover, or his role as Ziggy Stardust’s personal photographer, Rock is firmly entangled within the mythology of the movement with which he shares a name; if it was someone worth knowing, chances are Mick probably snapped them. “I’m not after your soul,” he explains, during SHOT! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock, a documentary on his life and work that premiered at Tribecca last year. “I’m after your fucking aura.”
And he always got it. The man who immortalised the erratic genius of Syd Barrett and Iggy Pop with the Madcap Laughs and Raw Power covers has ensnared his fair share of other-worldly, electromagnetic charisma – after all, you don’t get to direct music videos for David Bowie without having a bit of something. With SHOT! currently showing in both UK cinemas and online, we sat down with the seminal rock and roll photographer to find out what it was that drew him to these artists at the beginning of their careers – and how exactly to capture the aura of a person.
Mick Rock: It was really by accident that I first picked up the camera. I was on an acid trip in a friend’s room at Cambridge. If it hadn’t been for LSD and that particular trip – and a particular young lady – I wouldn’t ever have started dabbling with taking photos. Anyway, when I found out afterwards that there had been no film in the camera... well, that really got me thinking. I thought I may as well have another go. So I just started taking pictures, more for the fun of it. Then people started giving me little bits of money. It made the whole thing very organic. See, I wasn’t really interested in ‘why’ things happened photographically – I was just interested in the images.
IDENTIFY YOUR MUSES
Mick Rock: It was really about stuff that turned me on, that’s what I gravitated towards. I didn’t approach it in a commercial way, like, ‘who’s the biggest rock star?’, or, ‘where are The Beatles, The Stones?’ That whole glam scene, it wasn’t just David, Lou and Iggy. It was also the drag queens, Lindsay Kemp, the Rocky Horror Picture Show – I did all the famous pictures of that too.
And then there was Debbie Harry, Blondie. With Debbie, I don’t even think of her as punk – for me, she was just amazing to look at and to photograph. She had a fabulous attitude. She wasn’t precious and she’s still the same today. She isn’t a diva, she’s just a girl in a rock and roll band. Still the most fabulous, and – with all due respect to all of the modern performers – visually, no one has ever matched her. She’s just delicious to photograph. You couldn’t take a bad picture of her.
TRUST YOUR INSTINCT
Mick Rock: I just went for the people that interested me – you can look at it any way you want. There were no guarantees these guys were gonna be big, none at all. Even Raw Power – which became such a significant album, and is still today Iggy’s most famous image – was a complete dud when it was initially released. Transformer was successful and actually made Lou a bit of money, but Raw Power didn’t do shit for Iggy. People didn’t really get punk rock at that moment, but in the end, nobody ever got as close as him. He did punk rock in a way nobody else did. You can argue Sid Vicious is the image of punk, but he really didn’t have any musical chops – whereas Iggy, he had these revolutionary chops. He was dangerous.
I certainly did what I liked, and it didn’t matter how popular it was. Popular wasn’t what I was looking for. It was probably something to do with my classical English, British education. Verlaine, Baudelaire, all these fucking degenerates that produced great art – especially when they’re under the influence of drugs. There was a mentality involved in the whole thing and these characters satisfied that.
“I just went for the people that interested me – you can look at it any way you want. There were no guarantees these guys were gonna be big, none at all” – Mick Rock
BE PART OF THE CULTURE
Mick Rock: [The rock and roll] image kind of stuck around me for better and for worse – nowadays mostly for better. I didn’t consciously embed myself in that lifestyle, it just worked out that way with the relationships. I met Bowie before the release of Ziggy Stardust, shortly before the release of ‘Starman’. There was certainly nothing sensible about the whole thing, but it just kept rolling along and I was making enough money. You didn’t need much to live in the middle of a big city like London and New York.
Nightlife was a lot more exciting back then – Much more subterranean, much more subversive. That was part of the thrill of it all. Rock and roll got cleaned up a lot when it started showing up in the museums. You’re thinking, ‘what the fuck is this about?’
EMBRACE THE IMPERFECTIONS
Mick Rock: With the Syd Barrett pictures, you can see the lighting’s all wrong – all sorts. But it just works. The Transformer image, too – it’s falling out of focus in the enlarger, but it produced an image that, for me, looked more interesting than it would have looked had it been in focus. I showed Lou both versions and we both agreed that the out of focus version was the one. [That image] haunted him all his life. It was a magic album and a magic moment. It represented the degenerate end of that whole glam rock thing.
OPEN YOURSELF UP
Mick Rock: The soul and the aura are totally different. The aura is about the electromagnetic waves that you generate. The soul? That’s a spiritual thing. It’s really about spurring the energy. Early on, I wasn’t reading photography books, cos they were boring. Too technical, I couldn’t deal with all that shit. But, a young actor friend got me onto the teachings of Stanislavski, so I read a bunch of his books on how actor prepare. He talks about taking people – young actors – into a raw space and stirring the cycle of concentration. After a while, after something else starts to happen. It takes on a different form. The energy kind of elevates the whole thing into a different space.
I think you can open yourself up in a certain way that allows your subject to release their auras. Being photographed isn’t organically natural for most musicians. I’ve done yoga in pretty much session I’ve ever done since the Syd pictures. Yoga and a bit of meditation beforehand. Whether I subsequently ended up, back in the 70s and 80s, doing some cocaine, you know... it was neither important or unimportant. What was important was the yoga. I started being able to visualise things and learned to open myself up to situations in a certain way. I think maybe I had a certain openness going in – I never went in a judgemental way, or a critical way. I just went in enjoying the aura of these people, the creative aura. It turned me on.
“The soul and the aura are totally different. The aura is about the electromagnetic waves that you generate. The soul? That’s a spiritual thing” – Mick Rock
Mick Rock: The problem is that there’s a consciousness in wanting to be a successful photographer. I didn’t think like that. It wasn’t about being successful, it was just doing what I enjoyed doing and being happy that I was making enough money to survive. It wasn’t thinking, ‘what will that person want?’ – or that art director, or that magazine. I wouldn’t know how to deal with it. Just sell your obsessions – whether you’re making money or not.