Mick Rock Reveals his Life with the Iconic British Artist

David Bowie has gone down in history as a performer whose fluidity and dazzle lit the hearts of disenchanted youths, music-lovers, and concert-goers alike throughout his stratospheric lifespan. Iconic British photographer Mick Rock, known thanks to his star-studded and high-flying photographic career as “The Man Who Shot the Seventies”, is an artist whose photo book The Rise of David Bowie takes us deeper into the life and times of the musical legend.

book cover (TASCHEN)

Mick met David in early ’72, and from then on followed the musician’s career from a position of intimate and affectionate privilege: he knew David both as a subject, and as a friend. Mick took some time out of a busy year to talk to The Plus about his working relationship with David Bowie.

The Plus: Mick, obviously you’ve worked with a number of high profile artists. So what was so special about working with Bowie?
Mick Rock:
Well, so many things really, with David. He was a very communicative person, you could talk for hours with him, he was a very positive person, he was happy to take direction, we had a good time together, and he seemed to like everything I did, so it was easy working with him.

He was like my friend, and it was very hard to take a bad picture of him.


TP: There are so many great photographs in the book, how did you go about curating the selection with David?
We had done an earlier book together for someone called Genesis publications, but he trusted me to pick the pictures that I thought should be in the book. One thing we decided was that 50% of them should be pictures that had never been seen before. He wanted it to be special for his fans in that way.

TP: What do you love about the book?
It’s a really beautiful book. It’s got this particular cover with five images so when it sits on the table, you move around and the book keeps dancing for you. They did a wonderful job- I’m really happy. Although 50% have never been published before, of course there’s a lot of the classic images too.


TP: So how did you and David Bowie know each other in the first place?
It was a couple of years after college, in those very early days. When I met David it was to photograph him and interview him, and we found that we had a bunch of things in common. His manager told me, ‘you were the first photographer to see him the way he sees himself’, so I think that was really helpful. I had a lot of fun with David, he was a very positive personality. He brought out the best in people. He had a great way about him, and it made you want to do good for him.

TP: Did you see his relationship with the camera change over the years?
He always had a certain awareness. David was very secure in the way he looked. He never really put any restrictions on me – he was easy to photograph.


TP: Of all your photos of him, did David have any favourites?
There were certain pictures. I knew he liked the photo of him and Mick Rodson having lunch on a train – where they looked so spectacular but they’re eating a very banal, English, British railway lunch- lamb chops with peas and boiled potatoes. It’s a very famous photo.

TP: And did you get an insight into his fantastic makeup?
Mostly he would do himself- I have a lot of pictures of him doing his own make up.
He was very talented. On his very last tour- he got make up from a very famous performer in Japan; it was particularly bright in colour and he really liked it.


TP: What are you hoping this book will show people? Especially for a younger generation?
In a way, it’s like a final homage to David, so I’m glad I was able to make this gesture that he loved. Obviously it’s the Ziggy Stardust period, and I wanted to show as many facets of that period that I could. He was a magical person. To me, he was almost hypnotic to watch. He had this special charisma, and I do think the book really shows this. It shows the breadth of his charisma.


TP: If you had to choose three words to summarise your friendship with Bowie, what would they be?
Oh…I’ve only go three words I’m going to have to pick them wisely. He once said about me in an interview that I was very empathetic. I felt something for him, as an artist, but also as a human being. But I would say it was magical – I learnt from photographing David.You needed to be empathetic. Empathy, Excitement, Magic – How’s that?

TP: Great! Obviously, you’ve been in the music and entertainment industry for quite many years. What kind of music might we find on your playlist?
I like reggae. I like the Yeah, Yeah, Yeah’s.


TP: And, having dealt closely with both, what do you think about the digital / film photography divide?
I think it’s a little different for me and maybe photographers who have been around since the film era because you always think about a frame, whereas today people just take pictures. I mean I love it, I don’t have an issue and I’m not anti-digital. I just mean, there’s something about film that’s a bit more like art. I just don’t shoot so much film these days.


TP: Do you use your mobile to take photos?
Yes, when I’m travelling, and if I’m in a party I’ll just take pictures on my phone like everybody else, because it’s so easy.


TP: What do you do in your spare time apart from photography?
One thing I do every single day and have done for many years is I do my yoga workout. I started yoga in London in the 70’s. But I also chant, I also meditate, I get lots of massages, and acupuncture…You name it, I probably do it. I’m very clean. Do I go out? I get invited to parties all the time. I do it a bit but I don’t over do it. I also like old black and white movies, and I like documentaries. I like character-driven films, and a lot of the time they are the older films.


TP: If you weren’t a photographer, what would you be doing?
There would be two things, probably. I studied modern languages and literature at Cambridge University and everybody thought I would end up being a lecturer at university. I also have written, if you like, poetry, so I thought I might be a lyricist- that was another idea of mine. In both cases they were feasible, it’s just that photography came along , and somehow it was what I was meant to be. Could I have been a yoga teacher? Probably. I’ve certainly done enough. Between the words, the yoga and the photography, I probably would have been at least an interesting therapist.


TP: As a photographer, do you take a lot of care over your own image?
I have a lot of clothes because a lot designers give them to me, but a lot of the time I just wear basic black jeans, denim shirts, boots, denim jackets… I’m a photographer, and I need to be comfortable.

TP: Do you have any plans for new photo books?
We’re doing a new version of my Lou Reed book, which I did with him just before he died. It was originally published in 2012 just before Lou died, but we stopped it then. We’re going to launch it again this year. I travel a lot for exhibitions too-this year I’m doing Tokyo, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, London… I’m a busy boy.


Rise of Bowie is published by TASCHEN, available here.