From Bowie to Cocaine, Mick Rock Has Photographed All Your Faves
We talked to the iconic photographer about the upcoming VICE Documentary Films / Straight Up Films-produced doc on his career spent shooting music's greatest legends.
Mick Rock is The Man Who Shot the Seventies, but he doesn't like the term—and he doesn't much like being called an icon, either. "All that means is I'm getting old," he tells me on a phone call from his home in Manhattan. But these things tend to stick: His photographs have captured and defined music for the past forty years, including David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust phase and Lou Reed's post-Velvets career. Rock's photos adorn the covers of Iggy and the Stooges' Raw Power and Queen's Queen II, and he was there when the glam scene that he'd shot in such ecstasy started to harden and debase itself, as well as when Motley Crue signalled their own turn from underground sex clubs to coke-fueled strip joints. Recently, he's shot Father John Misty, Janelle Monáe, and Karen O. Whether you knew it or not, you've seen his work.
SHOT! the Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock, Barney Clay's documentary on the London-born photographer produced by VICE Documentary Films together with Straight Up Films, takes on Rock's career chronologically—London to New York, glam to punk, decadence to addiction to eventual recovery—but continually circles back to Rock's near-death experience in 1996, when a bout with cocaine left him sputtering and in need of a quadruple heart bypass surgery. He loved cocaine so much that he shot a series of still-life photographs in the early 80s with the drug as his subject; the photos are quite beautiful, but nobody can keep that lifestyle up.
Considering that Rock had complete control over his every shot and every aesthetic choice for forty years, it's no surprise that he spent periods of SHOT!'s five-year production period at war with Clay, and although the film captures Rock at his most lucid, he's still quite clearly in no mood for any sort of—his word—bollocks. Read on for our conversation, which has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Noisey: I watched the documentary this morning. It's great.
Mick Rock: Oh, you did? It's different, isn't it? I didn't want some fucking boring one with a load of talking heads justifying my existence. That's a boring way to approach it.
When was the first time you saw it?
I saw at least half a dozen cuts, and everyone was getting reams of critical notes. I was fucking on it mate, believe you me. I didn't like it for a while, but it's very different now from the way it was. It was a real downer at first, but I think that's because I was sick during most of it. But it got better and better. I was ready to keep changing it, but everyone seems to like it, so Barney and I are having a love affair again now.
Loads of people approached me about doing a documentary, including the people that made Man on Wire. But I'm agoraphobic, so I watched [Man on Wire] through my fingers and told them that there's no way I could do a documentary with them. Every time I'd think about them, I'd think about a motherfucking lunatic walking between those two fucking buildings with no safety net. I don't even want to talk about it, it freaks me out. Barney is talented, and he'd never done a documentary before, which was important to me. Most documentarians have all these fucking talking heads in it. Look at the pictures—you either like them or you don't.
What was it like to hand over the visual responsibility to another person?
My wife kept saying to me, "Mick, are you trying to direct this documentary?" I said, "No, I'm not." I'm a director, let's face it. I direct all my sessions. I've directed music videos. I've directed some other bits and pieces—but never anything 93 minutes long. I would think it's difficult to direct a documentary about somebody who's alive—you need to kill off the subject before you start. I kept saying to Barney, "You'd probably feel more comfortable if you fucking get someone to off me." I said that with a dark sense of humor, though. I'm not ready to go yet.
I was always trying to get into the fucking edit room, but they did everything they could to keep me out. It was a serious game of cat and mouse. It was important to me that my work was represented in a truthful way. I know that everybody wants that, because I deal with it all the time. Once Barney heard about the cocaine still lifes, I said, "No, I don't want to show them," but in the end, I did. I look at them and go, "Woof, I actually did a very good job. It's white and it's shiny." I remember saying to someone, "I probably could've been a great still-life photographer," and he looked at me and said, "Oh, come on Mick. The only reason you got great cocaine pictures is because you were in love with the subject. You wouldn't be in love with a fucking box of vegetables or something like that." And of course that was true.
Towards the end of the film, you say that you didn't want to dwell on your hospital time.
I wanted a lot less of it—but I did get a lot less. We got it to a point where there's a balance, and in the end I think he did a great job. Sometimes the best results come when you have two creative tensions. But there was a merging of the two psyches—mine and Barneys—and we're definitely pals again. There were periods where no one was quite sure where the fuck it was going to go, but the end result justifies the madness and the insanity of the process.
You describe yourself as "an insider looking out." Everything you do feels like a collaboration. Are there similarities between that work and the documentary-making process?
I don't just plonk someone in front of my camera. I never studied photography, but I had a roommate who was studying to be an actor and turned me onto a book, An Actor Prepares, [by] the godfather of the method school of acting [Konstantin Stanislavski]. I'll never forget this one particular chapter where he talks about taking people into a raw space and building this circle of concentration. I'm not a quick shag, so I like to take my time over things and build a certain energy. When you're dealing with musicians, a lot of them would rather be playing than standing in front of a camera—except for David Bowie. He was always happy to get in front of a camera. Lou [Reed] was like that with me, too. He and I always had a great time. But building a circle of concentration is like being a cook. You stir, add, and taste, and after a while, the pictures almost take themselves.
You say you can't remember doing a shoot without standing on your head for a bit first and that yoga has always been a huge part of your process.
The very earliest pictures that people are interested in are obviously my Syd Barrett pictures. The Madcap sessions pre-dated my involvement with yoga. But I learned transcendental meditation when I was very young too. I like to mix it all up—the yoga, the cocaine, the sex, the sleep deprivation, the starvation approach. You can get into amazing states of mind and being by mixing up all those different things. It certainly wasn't just the drugs—the yoga predated the cocaine addiction, which really started probably when I came over to do the Rock and Roll Heart tour with Lou. In London, you didn't really see [cocaine] so much in those days. You saw speed, but you didn't really see that. Whereas New York, oof. And then there was the girls. They were completely out of control as well. I blame it all on the girls and the drugs. I was just taken advantage of. At least, that's my story. I don't think my first wife bought into that.
Would it be fair to call you an icon?
All that means is I'm getting old.
What's a more delicate way of putting it? Legend sounds worse, doesn't it?
Sounds like they're going to stick me in the fucking closet, wheel me out, and dust me off every so often. But I still love to shoot! I don't get much opportunity, though, because I have to deal with all this other bloody stuff—including talking to you. Back then, who wanted to talk to a photographer? Nobody with any type of a fucking brain did, that's for sure.
Who are the comparable icons now? Your last shoot in the movie is with Father John Misty. The shoot that I thought was really interesting was Janelle Monáe—she really is iconic in the truest sense.
She's the real deal, that's for sure. I tell you who I'd like to shoot—Bruno Mars. It's about fucking time I did. My schedule is completely out of hand. I'm a bit like, "fuck all this." I'd like to go and play with my plums for a few weeks.
But when you're not doing that, would you just like to be shooting all the time?
That's my biggest buzz. But I've also learned [that] we live in an age when everyone fucking markets everything. I know people want to make me a big fucking brand. They've been talking about that with me for years—now more than ever. What am I going to do? Put my name on lipstick? Lipstick for Men, by Mick Rock. I think that would be fabulous. A very nice different shade of fuchsia.
Well, you'd buy it. You'd be in there. A little bit of Mick Rock lipstick to go with the high heels and the garter belt that I'm sure you wear. You're British, it's inevitable.
On which note, I'll let you go, Mick.
Alright love. It's a pleasure to talk to you. I hope you can make some sort of sense out of this conversation. It'll probably end up being mostly lies and propaganda. But I don't even care anymore. Bollocks. That's the game we're in, isn't it? It's the game you're in too. Maybe we'll get to meet one day. An orgy somewhere. Yeah, you can be indulging, I'll be watching. How's that?
All photos courtesy of Mick Rock and Magnolia Pictures