Shooting for Stardust: Mick Rock on Photographing Bowie

"The man who shot the Seventies" shares stories behind pictures in new book 'The Rise of David Bowie: 1972-1973'

Mick Rock served as David Bowie's official photographer from 1972 to 1973, when the singer took the pop world by storm as Ziggy Stardust. Credit: Mick Rock

British photographer Mick Rock has impeccable instincts, not to mention a perfect sense of timing. In the early Seventies, while working at the offices of Oz magazine in London, Rock came across a promo copy of a record titled Hunky Dory by a still-relative newcomer named David Bowie. That encounter led Rock, who was hooked on that album, to meet Bowie backstage at the latter's gig in Birmingham, England, where he took his first photos of the singer. It marked the beginning of a momentous working relationship in which Rock became Bowie's official photographer from 1972 to 1973 — a period during which Bowie took the pop music world by storm through his androgynous alter-ego Ziggy Stardust. "Mick sees me the way I see myself," the singer told his manager, according to Rock, upon viewing the results of a photo session at Bowie's residence.

Appropriately described as "the man who shot the Seventies," Rock went on to photograph numerous stars — from Syd Barrett, Lou Reed, Queen, Iggy Pop, and Blondie's Debbie Harry, to most recently the Black Keys, Janelle Monae, and Ellie Goulding. But undoubtedly Rock will be forever linked to his shots of Bowie at the height of the Ziggy Stardust phenomenon. Now that remarkable period is being celebrated in a new numbered limited-edition photo book, The Rise of David Bowie: 1972-1973, published by Taschen and due for release later this month. Co-signed by Bowie and Rock with text by Barney Hoskyns and Michael Bracewell, the large and lavish 310-page tome contains Rock's popular images of the legend along with many previously unseen ones; shots of Bowie in posed and candid moments as well as him performing live in his full-out Ziggy splendor.

Coinciding with the release of Rock's book is an upcoming exhibit of his works, Shooting for Stardust: David Bowie and Co., which opens September 10th at the Taschen Gallery in Los Angeles. Recently the photographer, who is the subject of an upcoming documentary, spoke with Rolling Stone at the Taschen offices in New York about working with Bowie during those two amazing years.

How did this book project originate? You and David had previously collaborated on a photo book from the early 2000s covering similar ground.
It was Taschen's idea. The editor approached me probably three years ago before my kidney transplant. And I said, "David and I already did a beautiful book [Moonage Daydream]," which we already co-signed with Genesis Publications. They said, "Well, we're aware of that, but 1) it's out of print, 2) we want to do our own version, and 3) we know you have a lot of previously unseen photographs." So they twisted my arm. And then I said, "I'm not gonna do this unless David gets on board and gives me his blessing."

So I approached David. He said he liked their books, he thought about it, and he said, "Let's do it, Mick." He approved everything — everything was run by David, everything was shown to David. His main concern going in, which was also mine, is that a certain percentage will be previously unseen photographs. And I made sure probably 45 to 50 percent of the book had photos that were never seen before. So that was important.

The other difference was I personally supervised all the new scanning done for the book, and they were done from the masters, whereas the Genesis book, I actually supplied them with dupes and prints, which they then scanned. In terms of the image quality, this is a step beyond.

Had you heard of David and his music before coming across that promo copy of Hunky Dory?
In 1969 I was barely aware of him but vaguely — he had a hit in England with "Space Oddity." It was around the time of [the Stanley Kubrick film] 2001: A Space Odyssey. I later remade [the video] in '72 for "Space Oddity," where by then David was establishing himself as a star. He was not a star when he made the [Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars] album. So it's all about projection. David was projecting like a motherfucker all over the place, not only in his performances, but in his interviews, in his records, in his lyrics [reciting lyrics from "Star"]: "I could make it all worthwhile as a rock star... I could do with the money... I'm so wiped out with things as they are." I mean, he wanted it. He was extremely ambitious and he was projecting like mad. He wanted it, he can taste it. 

What was your initial impression of David when you met him for the first time?
He was a very charming and gracious man. He still is to this day. When I saw perform him at Birmingham Town Hall, even though his outfits weren't as exotic or the makeup as it later became, the rudiments were there and the performance above all was mesmerizing. I think in this period I was very susceptible — I was kind of hypnotized by him. 

Did you had any inkling that he was going to be a star?
I believed him. Of course, we were all fucking know-it-alls and thought we knew everything. We thought we we very hip. Plus, I knew who the Velvet Underground were and who the Stooges were, which most people didn't at that time. Could I have imagined what it became? Well, that's a long time ago. I was a true a believer. 

You really had tremendous access to David. Why did he trust you?
Maybe because I was also doing interviews [including for Rolling Stone]. Whether it was David, Lou, Iggy, and later Queen and Co., I wanted to please the artist. 

One thing, David wasn't wearing drag. He was much more kabuki — space-age kabuki. Some people used to call it drag rock, but it really wasn't. It was this whole other thing. And of course, he mixed up all these great elements.

He was very open and relaxed with me. It seemed kind of normal at the time. He wasn't saying, "Don't shoot this, don't shoot that." He was a very positive and encouraging personality. He was not closed, he was very open. He wanted me to take the pictures.

David looked so comfortable in front of your camera. It's definitely indicative of his charisma. 
He wasn't quite a celebrity then. He clearly trusted me. He mixed a lot of elements, that was what made him much more interesting than say a Marc Bolan — it was the shaved eyebrows, it was the wild hairdo, the color, the amazing outfits. I realized what a privilege it was for me to hang out, to be able to get these photographs.

One of the images of Bowie from 1972 shows him staring in the mirror at Haddon Hall. He looked peaceful and subdued at that moment.
He wasn't a star then. But he understood that he was a star. Again, he certainly didn't have all the trappings. But you can feel in his charisma, I could feel the inevitability. And I certainly believed, and as time went on, so did tons of other people. Where did my intuitive thing come from? I don't know. I was probably so spaced out — I just reacted like with Lou and Iggy.

Another of the many striking photos in the book is the one of David trying to bite the guitar of his bandmate Mick Ronson onstage at Oxford Town Hall in 1972. At first glance, it appears that David was trying to go down on Mick.
Their set up had been "Starman," the single, and there's the famous Top of the Pops [episode] and they went on and did that, and David put his arm around Mick. That had quite a lot of reverberation. And then within a day or two of the release of Ziggy Stardust, there were a thousand people —his biggest audience to date — at Oxford Town Hall, and I just happened to come up to the side. I was shooting the show from the front, because I had the access. I went up the side and he hadn't warned me about anything. 

Later, when we were working on the Moonage Daydream book, he said, "You know, Mick, I wasn't trying to go down on Mick [Ronson]." In fact, if you look at that shot, you'll see that he's not actually on his knees. His feet are splayed. He said, "I was simply trying to bite Mick's guitar."

I remember him coming off stage afterwards and he said, "Did you get it? Did you get it?" And I'm thinking, "Well, I think I did. I'm not sure." It happened so fast. Next morning I got up early, processed the film, saw the shot, blew it up, brought it in, meeting David and his then-manager, and they were very excited about it. It had a shock value in the line from Hendrix burning his guitar or Pete Townshend smashing his guitar. But it was of the period because obviously it had an interesting overtone to it. The gay thing was still shocking then... but David played right into that, and that of course established the shock value. That kind of imagery was never seen before.

Also included in the book is an alternate version of a famous group shot you took of David, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed at London's Dorchester Hotel 1972. 
This has been published before, but this actual frame — although it is the famous moment — it's actually slightly different and it doesn't have the manager in the background. So this isn't the famous shot — although it looks very similar, obviously, but it doesn't have the manager. I just wanted to put something a little different.

One of your popular photos is the one in which David and Mick Ronson are charmingly having lunch inside a British train in 1973. Why does that one have appeal?
I don't know. They look fantastic, and it's such a mundane surrounding, and the food is so mundane. I think the way the two of them are looking at each other — they got the rock & roll game by the tail and they know it. And they're embarking on the last Ziggy tour. 

Sometimes you realize that little bit of magic was cast and I was in the thick of it because I wanted to be and because I was encouraged to be. Also, it was quite a small thing at that moment in time, which I did see grow into this much bigger thing. And then he was off to the fucking races. He had the taste and he wasn't ever going to let go and he never did. 

Bowie has gone through different personas after 1973 throughout his career and been photographed by others. But those images you took of Bowie from the Ziggy era remain memorable. 
They have an intimacy. I had no agenda. I wasn't like a regular news photographer who was affiliated with a particular outfit. I was celebrating the people — whether they were known or unknown — they were what was important to me, not the publication. I think the other thing was a lot of these people back then identified with me just as I did of them. I looked like one of them, I talked like one of them, I acted like one of them, and none of them had much money then... It's how young everybody was, and it was a young culture.

You certainly were at the right place and at the right time in photographing David during his major breakthrough before everyone else. 
It was nascent. Again, I was just following my instincts, but I was also encouraged by all these characters, especially David and Lou. 

Does David get nostalgic about the pictures you took of him? Has he ever said to you, "Wow, I can't believe you did this"? 
No, he doesn't. I don't think he does that about anything. He's amazingly self-disciplined. Again, you know him by his actions. There's not one picture in this book that he didn't approve, otherwise he wouldn't have signed off on it. David, God bless him, is an incredible artist in all sense of the word. I've always respected him and I still do to this day. It is a beautiful book. I do think it's lived up to what he probably was hoping it would do. But he's not going to say it like that, he'll do it with his approval. So you know David by his actions. 

He's an amazing character and an amazing artist. His shadow is long and wide and broad. There's some many people refer to him as being a huge influence, whether they're designers or artists or performers. My instinct was well-founded, even though I was hardly a fucking expert at that particular moment in time. Now I am an expert because I'm still living.