Q&A: Photographer Mick Rock

Written by J.T. Leroy on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

You know the
work of photographer Mick Rock, you just don’t know you know it. Mick Rock
is everywhere, from the movie poster for Hedwig and the Angry Inch to
his famous shots of rock stars. He’s been called the glam/punk-rock Forrest
Gump, because Mick Rock was there through much of recent rock ’n’
roll history. His new 2002 calendar, Punk Rock, is filled with pimples-and-all
closeups of the Sex Pistols and everyone else who was vital to the music scene
at the time. His new book, Blood and Glitter, is filled with revealing
shots of young Bowie, Queen, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. You feel Mick Rock has given
you a secret backstage pass and you’re hiding in the wings, seeing your
idols out of the spotlight, away from the cheers and applause, looking right
into their souls as they are in the process of becoming who they will eventually
be in the history of rock ’n’ roll.

You were there
at a pivotal time in music history, when a lot of these amazing artists were
just starting out. How did you get involved in those scenes?

Timing, instinct,
luck, obsession. In retrospective a lot of factors came in to play. Obviously
it wasn’t because I was so smart or prescient. How could I possibly have
known so many of these people would become such a big deal? I was very much
a child of my times. Certainly I identified with a lot of the people I shot
back then. The other important factor was that in those early days, I not only
photographed but I also did interviews and articles on them, so I got into their
heads in a way most photographers wouldn’t. All the quotes in Blood
and Glitter
are selected from interviews I conducted. It was such a crazy
time and everyone was very young. We were very insular in a way, only interested
in each other, people that lived the same outsider lifestyle. It all grew out
of what was dubbed "the underground"–the hippie/bohemian/ revolutionary/student/artist/rocker
community–where we were all exploring sex, drugs, esoteric literature,
yoga, meditation. Gurus galore, psychotherapy and any means to an altered
consciousness. That was the key urge–the bending of the mind and the
senses… You rolled the dice with your sanity and health and of course there
were many casualties.

Syd Barrett
comes to mind. I met him through friends of mine at Cambridge–see Psychedelic
, the book of my photos of Syd to be published by Genesis Publications–before
Pink Floyd made their first album. In those early days Syd was the Floyd.
He had the magic and was a precocious and mesmerizing artist. Only later did
I start playing with cameras, and when Syd departed the Floyd to start making
solo albums in 1969 I did the photos. These were among my very earliest sessions.

The first time
I picked up a camera I was on a trip. It belonged to a friend. When I went to
retrieve the film a day or two later, the camera was empty. I had totally overlooked
the essential first step of loading it. So my very first images of a beautiful
young blonde lady are floating somewhere in the ether. Next trip I borrowed
the same camera and made sure my friend loaded it. I still have those frames.
So career and money were the last things on my mind when I started out. It was
an entirely different universe media-wise. I just gravitated to the people who
interested me and a lot of them were musicians.


Meeting David
Bowie in early 1972 just as he had morphed into Ziggy Stardust was pivotal.
That was in February, and there were only 300 people at the first concert I
saw and shot… It took a little longer for a broader public to catch on. When
Ziggy Stardust the album was released in June, after that nothing was
ever the same again. From the start, we found that we had many interests in
common, so I took photos, wrote a few articles for music and men’s magazines.
Through David I met Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Mott the Hoople and the master mime
Lindsay Kemp–Bowie’s stage mentor–all without any commercial
success at that point. I saw the whole thing explode that summer and autumn
in front of my camera.

The rockers
you shot seem to all really trust you, letting you take some very candid photos.
What was your intention when you were shooting them?

When I first
met most of these people, they were like me–desperate for novelty, for
breakthroughs, for anything that would make things happen. Make people stand
up and be shocked. What they were interested in, I was interested in. My loyalties
were totally with them. Not with record companies or publications. I never approached
them with a critical eye. For me the artist was and still is first and foremost.
I identified very closely with them. They were my people. I was very protective
of them. Of course, as the years rolled on, I realized I was as much in need
of "protection" as they were–but I was too blinded by my enthusiasm
for my subjects to realize this… So it’s clear they were very relaxed
with me. They knew I was one of them, totally on their side, not some outsider
attempting to exploit them. Some of the photos were a little too candid–but
those are locked deep in the vaults…

Your pictures
are very intimate at times, really capturing a rawness at the heart of an artist.
I would think most folks would be honored, but did anyone ever feel betrayed
when they saw your pictures?

No, I don’t
think anyone ever felt betrayed by the intimacy of my photos–first, because
we were all so desperately uninhibited, and also where they maybe went too far
over the line–especially in the case of graphic sex or chemistry abuse–everyone
knew that those images would never see the light of day.

I know you’re
very healthy now, practicing yoga. How did you get over the drugs?

The miracle
is that, notwithstanding the notable casualties, so many key players are still
alive and working. Altered consciousness was paramount. To explore the full
potential of the mind and the senses, that was the ambition. Money, fame, career–that
was all by-product. Heroin was never a problem for me, because I had three friends
OD on it by the time I was 20. I wasn’t looking to die. But that left plenty
of other powders and pills to indulge in. I was more interested in the "up"
substances. Nodding out in a corner had very little appeal to me–although
not everyone I knew felt the same. Early on, I learned about hatha yoga, which
I would use to bring myself down from an extended high. Not what the wise men
intended it for, but then I wasn’t playing strictly by the rules… I was
very drawn to extreme, self-destructive artists and I wanted to push things
as far as I could. But in my mind, I wasn’t on a death trip. By the early
90s, I was slowing things up, but I still retained a serious cocaine habit.
At one point in the 80s I knew at least a dozen dealers so I was never very
far from a line or two. The reality is that the quality of the drug deteriorated
by the late 80s. God only knows what people snort today, but it is clearly not
the substance it was in the 70s.

Anyway, to
cut to the quick of it: Christmas 1996, I nearly died. All the arteries to my
heart were clogged. I should have been over and out. My heart is apparently
very strong–maybe the headstands I had practiced for years saved the day.
I ended up at NYU Medical Center thanks to a very kindhearted friend–I
had at the time no health insurance–and had quadruple bypass heart surgery.
Throughout the operation and the recovery, I was detoxing. So it was a very
painful experience. Not one that I have any desire to duplicate. But it completely
wiped out my lust for cocaine and cigarettes.

When you shoot
a subject, what is it that you are looking to convey?

When I approach
a photo session I feel more like a cook. I make sure all the prescribed ingredients
are present–subject, studio, location, set, equipment, assistants, makeup
artist, etc. Then I empty out all expectations with yoga, massage, etc. I allow
the session to progress organically. I follow the scent. I cajole it, prod it,
let it all evolve through interplay with the subject and circumstances. It’s
more like a love affair. For the duration of the session, I am totally fixated
on whoever is in front of my lens. I explore the unique aura that every individual
gives off. It’s like a transmuted sexual thing. I’ve studied very
little about photography but a fair bit of Jung and Stanislavsky. I remember
very early on reading sections of An Actor Prepares, in which he talks
about the fundamental process of "building the circle of concentration."
When you get everyone focused and going in the same direction, you will always
get the right result. My sessions are never about revelation, but rather about

I love your
punk rock calendar. How did that come about? What has been the response of the
folks in it? Does John Lydon dig it?

Everyone who
has seen the calendar likes it–Debbie, Johnny, Iggy and Lou. The photo
of Johnny on the cover was taken at the very first Sex Pistols concert ever.
It was Chelsea arts college Christmas party in December 1975. There was Johnny
in his inimitable way signaling the death of glam and heralding the advent of
punk. No one knew what the hell to make of them. People weren’t used to
being insulted by a performer. He kept calling us "cunt" and "wanker"
and wondering why we don’t all just "fuck off out of it." The
Siouxsie shots were the only time I ever lensed her, but she was a lot of fun
and it turned out to be a classic session. I love the Debbie picture in the
calendar. She was always an exquisite photo subject and remains so to this day–the
greatest blonde that ever rocked.

See www.mickrock.com
for current events, publications, etc.