From glittery eye makeup to punk chic, Mick Rock is the British photographer credited with constructing and capturing the subversive face of rock music – from David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust to Debbie Harry’s Blondie. His camera gave the world of music several of its most famous album covers, including Lou Reed’s Transformer and Queen‘s Queen II.
Now 65, and working with contemporary bands such as the Killers and the Black Keys, Rock has taken part in a new project designed to celebrate his best-known images. With the help of young Brooklyn singer-songwriter Danielle Parente, the veteran photographer – who has homes in his native London and Staten Island, New York – has been recreating his “greatest hits”.
The “man who shot the 70s” calls his project The Revisit. To reconstruct a key Debbie Harry shot (which he calls Blue Debbie), he used a Nikon DF camera with one of his favourite lenses, the 28mm that he used for a famous shot of Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett. Three members of Parente’s band also joined her for a revamp of the Queen II cover, which itself had been recreated in the Bohemian Rhapsody music video.
So much for nostalgia. Speaking to the Observer before the exhibition, Rock said he was unsettled by the dominance of image over music in the industry today. Present-day artists such as Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga, he argued, operated primarily as visual products rather than creative musicians.
“When I was photographing in the 1970s it was to accompany the music. It was clearly adjacent to it,” he said. “We were living in a much less visual universe and before we took pictures we often used to lie down, light a joint and listen to the music. Now the song is a mere accompaniment to the images.”
Looking back at his work, Rock said it was clear that the music business had changed. “This may be a golden age of photography, in as far as many people can take a lot of quality shots,” he said. “But we are all now so aware of the power of imagery that in the case of someone like Miley Cyrus, and even with Lady Gaga, clearly the image comes first. I know what Miley Cyrus looks like, but have to admit I don’t really know what she sounds like.”
After meeting Bowie in 1972, Rock took the famous shots of the singer making himself up as Ziggy. The images had come to symbolise the era, he said, yet they had no idea they would last. “In those days, you didn’t know if your pictures would have any afterlife, so in a funny way they were more disposable,” said Rock. “A photo session was more relaxed. These people were friends of mine, whether it was David, Debbie Harry, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop or Freddie Mercury.”
Drugs were a part of the path to creativity. “I had to take LSD before I could pick up a camera,” he said. “That, and the yoga I was practising from early on, opened me up.
“I have become so universally identified with that era that they say I shot the 70s,” Rock said. “But I never shot REO Speedwagon, the Carpenters or the Strawbs.” He did, however, shoot well-known images of Pop, Mercury, Bryan Ferry, Mick Jagger, Alice Cooper and Reed.
“I might have been a writer or a lecturer if I had not picked up that camera,” said the former Cambridge modern languages student. “Certainly that is what my mother thought. She was very concerned at the time. Now, at 93, she feels a bit differently. She knows I am a relic.”
He first turned to rock photography after university precisely because it was not cerebral, so he finds it hard to accept that his work is now on show in museums and cultural centres. “What was once rock’n’roll and very disposable is now art. My vision, for better or worse, has been pure music,” he said.
Rock suspects his old collaborator Bowie is equally disconcerted by the modern emphasis on image over music.
“It is true that a lot of my images defined David, but I always think of him as being magical and super-intelligent. He doesn’t always like being taken quite this seriously as a cultural figure, I think. He did not want to be directly involved with the recent V&A show about him. David is quite a light spirit and his main concern is his music. That can get a bit lost now.”
Rock said he regards his own talent as an “aptitude” rather than a creative vision and that he has thousands of unseen images of Bowie from the Ziggy Stardust era – and possibly more of the late Lou Reed. Although Rock thinks drugs were a useful way of opening up his own mind to a new way of life, he said he did not believe they were crucial to the artistry of the stars he photographed.
“Lou’s song Perfect Day was a love song really, I believe,” he said, referring to the persistent claim that Reed wrote the song in praise of heroin. “There were a certain amount of chemicals involved then for many of us, it is true, but it was almost peripheral, really. Creatives are creative people and they are going to create whatever.”
These days, the kind of cool cats that Rock photographs are rather different. “If I am taking shots for pleasure now, I tend to take them of my Maine Coon cat. It really is a spectacular breed,” he said.