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Exclusive: Mick Rock, 'The Man Who Shot the Seventies,' on David Bowie, Syd Barrett and More

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mick rock
Mick Rock
© Nathalie Rock 2009

Between 1972 and 1979, Mick Rock shot the faces that, for many, define a pop cultural decade: David Bowie. Queen. Blondie. Iggy Pop. Syd Barrett. Through his photo and video work, he created various forms of iconic imagery: some of the famous album covers in history – Queen II, Raw Power, Transformer, to name a handful – as well powerful portraits firmly in the modern canon of rock visuals. Known by many as the "Man Who Shot the Seventies," Rock also developed a special kinship with Bowie, serving as his official photographer – and videographer not long after, as they experimented on some of the proto-MTV era's first music videos.

One of those clips, "Life On Mars," recently underwent dramatic underworking by British film director Barney Clay and Rock himself as part of The Creator's Project. Using raw footage and outtakes from the original clip, the result gives a dusty classic a striking new manifestation. As that exhibition travels the globe, Rock is keeping busy with a deluge of editorial work and personal projects; he'll also be celebrating the December 8th opening of his new exhibit at W New York Downtown, which features both his iconic work and previously unseen candids of stars like Lady Gaga.

Rolling Stone caught up with Rock for a multi-ranging two-part interview.

bowie mick rock
David Bowie
© Mick Rock 2002


Can you talk about your recent Creator's Project collaboration with David Bowie and Barney Clay?
I love it. It's very cool. And David likes it. He's seen it in DVD form as he was out of town. It's going to be touring as part of the Project, but I'm not sure if it's coming back to NYC. It all came about by talking to Eddy Moretti at Vice with Barney Clay about funding for a documentary about me. He told us about The Creator's Project and asked how we'd like to be a part of it. Barney was aware of old videos I have of David from way back in the far blue yonder. He said: "Why don't we do something with Life on Mars?" I'd always seen that video as a painting: simple, with David extraordinarily lit and exotic on a white background. Some of these videos came about in one day shoots, two day edits because there was no budget. Necessity comes to be regarded as art; but back then, the thoughts were more modest!

Where did those early videos play, as MTV wasn't invented yet?
"Life On Mars" appeared on an English TV program that David couldn't go fit into his schedule, so they played the video. Usually, they wouldn't do anything but a live performance, but he had enough clout as a media sensation in the UK, so they bent the rules. Yeah, videos in those days were generally played in circumstances like that before MTV. And a lot of videos just laid dormant until it did come around.

Will you revise more old clips of Bowie's or any other artist?
With this documentary of mine kicking in, there may be some more tampering with some of them ahead. But you have to keep the subject happy, too; in an art gallery context, I can do what I want with the visual. If I want to run it with the music, I have to keep the subject happy. I now own those films. David very kindly gave me the rights to the videos 10 to 12 years ago. "Life On Mars" lends itself well to reinvention. I always think minimalist videos are the most powerful, anyway.

What do you think of today's music videos?
Some are pretty cool, because they don't have much of a budget and they are created with a sense of immediacy. I'm not overly keen on overproduced videos. It's about the raw energy and the act itself. That's what people want to see above all. You don't need an army of dancers to be effective. Is yours a punk rock bare bones approach? It may come from the fact I'm a stills photographer. I'm interested in keeping it simple with lighting, textures, atmosphere, than bells and whistles. But again, I'm of the era where there wasn't a lot of budget for that, anyway. Then again, here we are again today! Maybe that's why I've been working a lot again these days! [Laughs.]

ramones mick rock
The Ramones
© Mick Rock 1979
 

A lot of that work has been for style editorials. Is it imperative that your fashion shoots also feel rock 'n roll?
One thing I'm more aware of when I do those is I do more full-length shots. But the essential image is the same. I like controlled situations these days; I play loud music and it gets very noisy and boisterous. I create an energy and I think that comes across the images.

Who are some of the recent people you've shot? Do you like working with a new cast of characters?
Lady Gaga, Janelle Monae, Ellie Goulding, Katy B, The Naked and Famous, so many characters. I think more work is better now, personally. People always do. I know more. All my early work was on instinct.  I never had a formal training, but I always think that's the best way, the same way I think musicians do their best work outside of formal training. You learn what you need to and you make up the rest. You're not hedged in by too much technical knowledge. When I took those photos of Syd Barrett a lifetime ago – that people still love &ndash I barely knew how to focus a  camera and how to expose. Beyond that, it was all instinct. In that sense, I will always be a music photographer, because that energy works for rock. But I also take some good shots of cats!

Do people ever request you to constantly refer back to you earlier aesthetics?
People refer to the Syd Barrett and Iggy photos, as well as the lighting on the Queen Bohemian Rhapsody shot. I've had others request the pop  art color and style of my Debbie Harry shots. People know certain images best. Like a musician, you get known for your hits. It can be a limitation, but it's also a guarantee you can earn a living.

Do you have to connect to the musician for the shoot to go well?
I need to give them a sense that I'm very focused on them. I think that's how the connection comes. They love to fiddle around; getting a musician to stand still is hard. You have to keep them entertained. They feel they have no control. When Deadmau5 and I shot, he seemed a little suspicious of everything at first. But luckily, no one walks into a situation completely cold with me; they know something about me and my body of work. And I enjoy what I do, and I think that honestly helps everyone involved.

Do you ever butt heads with talent?
Not really. They know it's a collaboration; I'm not their adversary. I've never worked for a magazine, I've always been independent. I'm on the musician's side.  There is usually a mutual desire to create strong imagery together. 

bono gaga mick rock
Bono and Lady Gaga
© Mick Rock 2009

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