Mick Rock—Rock of Ages

For this journalist, to be in the court of photographer Mick Rock is an honor. One is seldom granted the privilege of climbing inside the mind of someone whose photography served as the foundation for modern rock ‘n’ roll imagery as we know it. And aside from that, he’s one hell of a charming man—all profanities, notwithstanding.

“Just don’t call me a cunt when you write about me, okay?” Rock makes me promise this through a bellyful of laughter during a recent phone chat. “Otherwise, you write what you want.” As if I’d ever write such a thing about someone so gracious enough to fit time into his busy schedule to talk about his magnificent career, and the upcoming (and equally-magnificent) Behind the Lens engagement with fellow photographer, Henry Diltz. 

On October 10, at the Society for Ethical Culture Concert Hall in Manhattan, and the following evening, October 11, at the YMCA Boulton Center for the Performing Arts on Long Island, both photographers will be on hand to tell the stories behind their iconic images in an event sponsored by the prominent West Village rock photography haunt, the Morrison Hotel Gallery. According to event organizers, Behind the Lens presents music fans with “an entirely new perspective on some of the most iconic photographs ever taken”—of which Rock has plenty. 

“As it turns out!” Rock says this with a bit of a chuckle, suggesting that even he’s slightly bewildered by the amount of historic moments he’s collected on a hard drive that will be used as part of the presentation. “I don’t know how we’re going to get through them all,” he wonders genuinely. 

The pairing of Rock and Diltz is a dynamite combination. “He’s a very, very nice man,” says Rock. “He’s super-laid back, and he’s Mr. West Coast, and I’m, like, London-New York, and I don’t think anyone’s ever called me laid back,” he says jokingly. As the dusk of the sixties settled upon the land, Diltz captured some of the most memorable photos of Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and others from the California scene, while Rock ping-ponged between London and New York, capturing on film nothing short of some of the most legendary performers ever.

Syd Barrett

David Bowie.

Lou Reed.

Iggy Pop.

Debbie Harry.

Our heroes. His friends. All pioneers in the equation of sound plus vision.

In making his selections for Behind the Lens, Rock says, “I had to obviously be [mindful] of the early stuff… Syd, Bowie, Lou, Iggy, and Debbie, and Freddie [Mercury] and Queen, and the Rocky Horror stuff, too.” (Rock was the film’s chief photographer.) “But there’s also Peter Gabriel, there’s Ozzy (Osbourne)… there’s a whole load of other stuff.”

Mick Rock was born Michael David Rock in Hammersmith, a district of west London, in 1948. Rock—the man who the BBC cites as “The Man Who Shot the Seventies”—studied at the University of Cambridge, where he developed an interest in Rimbaud and Baudelaire. He would also soon befriend another burgeoning artist, one who was about to carve out a legacy of his own: Syd Barrett. Rock—who was just still beginning to fully unlock the potential of the camera—began to take a series of photographs of Barrett, one of which became the cover of Barrett’s 1971 album, The Madcap Laughs, his first solo album after his dismissal from Pink Floyd.

The summer of 1973 proved to be a pivotal year for Rock, as the glam rock artists associated with the scene began to percolate. “It was in the air,” he says. “Bowie was the prime character, and obviously, there was Mott the Hoople lurking around, and then Lou and Iggy. The precursor of it all, obviously, was Marc Bolan. I wrote many years ago that if Bowie was the Messiah of glam rock, then Marc Bolan was John the Baptist. So, it was all bubbling about, and I was bubbling. What can I say?”

Soon, a band called Queen came knocking, looking for photographs that encapsulated the British glam rock look popular at the time. The result of their union was another iconic album cover shot by Rock, Queen II. “Well, that was Freddie. [He] was the driving force behind that,” he says. “In those days, Freddie was the prime visual motivator of the band. I think as time when on, it was spread around much more. But in the early days, it was a bit like Lennon & McCartney: Lennon was the primary one early on, but McCartney obviously then contributed, and it became much more equal. And it was the same thing with Freddie and Brian (May, Queen guitarist).” 

The album would produce Queen’s first bonafide hit, “Seven Seas of Rhye,” and Rock’s image—and talents—would be cemented into legend. Throughout his career, Rock has shot album covers for—among countless others—Rory Gallagher, the Dead Boys, Talking Heads, and perhaps one of his most famous works, a photo of Lou Reed, was used for Reed’s 1972 Transformer album. Rock also captured the most intimate moments of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust-era, which Rock published as The Rise of David Bowie 1972-1973 (TASCHEN) in 2018.

Throughout the eighties, Rock would continue to be prolific in his work, shooting unforgettable photos of Joan Jett and Motley Crue. But in the process, excess crept into Rock’s life in a way he couldn’t control. After years of cocaine abuse, the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle caught up with him, and the photographer underwent a quadruple heart bypass in order to save his life. He’s very genuinely lucky to be alive, as is illustrated in the 2016 documentary of his life Shot! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock. Rock—who initially had mixed feelings about the film but has since warmed up to it—jokes that “It’s even got a bunch of cocaine still-lifes that I shot, probably in the early eighties!” 

Today, Rocks leads a healthier lifestyle—he’s sober, dedicated to practicing yoga, and perhaps works more now than he ever has before. Last month, he did a shoot with Benecio Del Toro in SoHo. (He loves Del Toro’s film Sicario). It’s safe to say that “The Man Who Shot the Seventies” has soldiered on with gusto shooting some of the greatest talents of the the 21st Century, including Pharrell, Father John Misty, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs,Kings of Leon, and countless more. The sale of Rock’s prints are steady and profitable, and even with an arsenal of some of the greatest images taken over the last 50 years, he’s still energized and motivated by and the  gravity of emotion conveyed by each of his subjects within his photos, as well as how they resonate with fans.

“I mean, mostly what I sell [the most of] is prints from the seventies and eighties. But interestingly enough, of all the people I’ve shot in more recent years, [I’ve sold a lot of] Snoop [Dogg] prints… I did a great shoot with him.”

A week prior to our conversation, he brushed elbows by chance with Lenny Kravitz in Dallas, so they chatted about doing a shoot together. And like Kravitz, Rock understands the importance of gratitude. 

“Gratitude in this life is something we all need. Someone like me, when you get to seventy, you’re grateful to still be alive and in reasonable working order. And still working.” 

May the work of Mick Rock continue on forever.