Interview: Mick Rock. Shooting Stars

Mick Rock in London on 3 November 2014 (Imelda Michalczyk)

Mick Rock in London on 3 November 2014 (Imelda Michalczyk)

Mick Rock has already done six interviews today and is about to start packing for a morning flight out of London. One of the biggest names in music photography in the last four decades, Rock is on a whirlwind media tour to support a newly published paperback collection of his work entitled Exposed. Will he be too exhausted or jaded for one more walk through his staggering back catalogue of music photography tales? Thankfully not, it transpires. Instead, I’m treated to a close up on Syd Barrett’s first album shoot, a wide angle on Lou Reed’s puppy obsession, a mid-shot on Queen’s hair anxiety and a final zoom in on Andy Warhol receiving a pie to the scalp. Rock on…

It sounds like you’re extremely busy at the moment, with the launch of Exposed?

It’s just insane, what’s been going on lately. I wish it was simple like the old days. It used to be that rock and roll was very disposable, it was supposed to be an outsider thing. Everyone was a rebel. Everyone was also very young. Nowadays, it’s so embraced by the galleries and museums and cultural centres. And then there’s this 24 hours a day internet thing going on – the monster that wants to be fed. Think of 1972 – no cable TV, no fax, no cells, certainly no internet and not that many places you could get your pictures published in. So, it was not complicated – this is a whole different beast.

If you were starting now, would you follow the same path?

I have no idea. Photography is both extremely disposable but also taken much more seriously today. I don’t think most people would use the word art in relation to anyone’s photography back then. Maybe in a couple of cases, like Man Ray. It’s interesting to still be around. I’ve been around for 40 years in this game. The whole world has changed, right in front of my eyes.

I wanted to start with the end of your new book. There’s a quote from Yogi Bhajan: “There are no accidents. Anything that comes to you, you have put out beams for it.” What does that mean to you, what were your beams?

I suppose in the early days just projecting the idea of taking pictures, but I also was building an obsession with alternative approaches to things, especially the inner life. The hippie stuff, when there was not much interest in the west in yoga, meditation, acupuncture, chiropractic. I used a brain machine – it messes around with your brain rhythms, your perceptions. There’s many ways that happens, the obvious way is with drugs, but that’s by far the least, in many ways. A lot of the early pictures were probably taken not eating, not sleeping, which lowers your blood sugar – all the blood goes to your brain, it doesn’t go to your stomach. How to play with your perceptions, that was the stuff that really intrigued me. Photography was kind of a by product of it. Of course, I pushed it all a bit to the limit and then I threw in a few chemicals. So, in 1996 I had quadruple bypass heart surgery for my sins. Two years ago I had a kidney transplant. But I’m doing fine. I don’t have any side issues like a lot of people, especially if they were messing around with things when they were younger. And, of course, a lot of people are dead. There’s a lot of dead men out there.

It’s a little over a year since Lou Reed passed on. You worked extensively with him over decades. How does working with an artist over a period of time change your relationship with them as a photographer?

I shot Lou every single way that was possible, including ways that shall never be published! [Laughs] But when it came to the image-making, we just fell back into our pattern, it didn’t spoil anything at all. The intimacy of the relationship didn’t interfere with how I saw his aura, or how I saw his image, as opposed to him, my mate Lou. But it’s all about the energy of the moment for me and the way I prepare myself. I don’t pick up a camera nowadays without doing my yoga and meditation and a bit of a chant and then a massage.

All before you shoot?

99% of the time, yeah. It does change the way the brain functions.

How does that influence the shoot?

I think I’m very open to the possibilities of the situation. Let me use a quote. I had a friend who was an actor and he had a book: An Actor Prepares by Stanislavsky – the godfather of the method school of acting. He talked about taking people into a raw space and building the circle of concentration. Once you’ve built that circle of concentration, all kinds of things will start to happen spontaneously and then you become more of an instrument than a director. It’s a little mysterious, but it’s very focused.

Mick Rock in London on 3 November 2014 (Imelda Michalczyk)

Mick Rock in London on 3 November 2014 (Imelda Michalczyk)

At the start of your career you photographed Syd Barrett at home, for the cover of The Madcap Laughs. Did you have a plan for the shoot?

I’d known Syd and done acid with Syd. You were going to have to play it by ear with him. I didn’t expect Iggy [Syd’s girlfriend] to answer the door with no clothes on, that was the first thing, and the floor was unfinished, there were cigarette butts and whatever underneath the paint. Then out on the street there was Mickey Finn’s old car that he’d swapped with Syd for Syd’s mini. And that just happened to be there for that period. So, maybe I just got really lucky.

Was the album already recorded, had you heard it?

I’d heard bits of it. I mean Syd was Syd. There was a certain unpredictable quality about him. But no, it wasn’t shot conceptually.

Looking at a rather more planned set up – Queen, with all the band members together and looking up into the light, which was later recreated for the Bohemian Rhapsody video. Was it tricky to set up, did it take long?

Well, it was tricky because they were not experienced, the only previous studio session they’d done had actually been with me. I found this picture of Marlene Dietrich and showed it to Freddie and he loved it. But then I had to shoot it! Dietrich was a master of lighting, which she had learnt from the director Josef von Sternberg, so she knew what worked with her. I changed the lighting a little bit because I made it more rock and roll by hooding the eyes. It took a while to get them in the right position, especially because I was up on a ladder and they wanted to keep looking in a mirror to make sure the make up and the hair was looking good.

One of my favourite images from the book is a black and white shot from 1972 of Iggy Pop, taken at the first Stooges gig in London. It’s a moment of such stillness in what must have been a very dynamic show. What’s your approach to live photography?

That was the first time I’d ever seen Iggy. I want to scope out what they do, how they move, but I’m also shooting as I go along. I don’t want to miss anything. You have to have a certain flexibility of thinking to go in there. Once you know somebody, like Bowie and Lou and Queen, I can anticipate things in certain parts of the show. That famous shot of David [Bowie], not really on his knees but with his feet splayed, chewing on Mick Ronson’s guitar, I didn’t know that was coming. David said later that he was just going to bite the guitar, it was the way Mick was swinging the guitar around that meant if he wanted to keep chomping on it, he’d have to go down a bit.

I’m sure you’re constantly asked about certain artists, so I wondered if there was a particular shot or artist you’d like to speak about from this new book?

Like Andy Warhol getting pied? It’s from around the late 70s in New York. This guy Aron Kay, he was into pieing famous people. He plonked a meringue pie on Andy’s head. I’m like ‘shit my camera’s in the other room!’. Andy said ‘don’t worry, go and get your camera’, so I went and got my camera and he plonked the pie back on his head and you can clearly see he didn’t mind. And [pointing at another photo on the page] there’s Lou Reed buying one of his puppies. You can see how he is with the dogs. He loved these little dogs. But the add on to that was that he had a miniature dachshund and he wanted to get a pal for him, Lou called him The Duke. But the dog kept growing, so in fact it wasn’t a miniature – he’d been slipped a regular dachshund.

I’ve heard you mention how some pictures were actually the result of using the wrong film or lighting or processing. Do you think accidents are where the art lies?

They certain can be. Transformer (Lou Reed’s album cover image), of course, fell out of focus in the initial printing and I always liked it. That wasn’t intended to be the cover, the original idea was to use what turned out to be the back – it hadn’t been shot at that time, but that was the idea. When this picture popped up, the out of focus one, Lou said ‘well that’s got to be the cover’. It was probably a good move because even people who knew about his music, which wasn’t that many in those days, they didn’t have an idea in their mind, a visual idea of Lou Reed. They had this idea of him but they had never seen anything and that image seemed to pull together that rather dark, slightly degenerate feel. I think think Rolling Stone said he looked like a giant panda. [Laughs]

Is there anyone you’ve not worked with who you’d be excited to photograph?

Yeah, I’d like to photograph Jay-Z, because he’s Jay-Z. I don’t know if he’s especially photogenic but he’s a huge act and personality. I would love to have photographed Clint Eastwood in his prime, around the time of The Outlaw Josey Wales. I would love to have photographed Bill Clinton. I’m certainly curious about people who have mastered their particular thing in life. Sustaining a career in any way shape or form is not easy, there’s a lot of one hit wonders about there.

 (Rockshot Images)
Mick Rock Exposed (Palazzo Editions, £16.99)

Mick Rock is certainly no one hit wonder himself. Exposed clearly traces a regal rock heritage of photography work. With a new book on David Bowie in the works and a documentary about Rock’s own career due out next year too, there’s no sign of the hectic pace abating. Keep on rocking…

Interview and photographs by Imelda Michalczyk.

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