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Mick Rock - An Obituary

Mick Rock – Photographer

Born November 22, 1948; died November 18, 2021


Mick Rock, who has died aged 72, was a photographer who held court at the centre of 1970s rock music culture. His pictures of David Bowie, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop immortalised what Rock called his ‘unholy trinity’, who defined their era of post hippy, pre punk glam. 


Rock photographed Bowie through his Ziggy Stardust phase, with his famous shot of Bowie simulating fellatio on Mick Ronson’s guitar attracting attention for both parties. Rock also took the cover image of Reed’s album, Transformer (1972), and Raw Power (1973) by Pop and The Stooges. The pictures were taken when Reed and Pop played London on consecutive nights. As Bowie’s official photographer, Rock took the cover image for Pin Ups (1973), and also directed promo films for The Jean Genie (1972), Space Oddity (1972), and Life on Mars (1973). 


Rock had already photographed Syd Barrett for the cover of the former Pink Floyd founder’s debut solo album, The Madcap Laughs (1970). Rock and Barrett had dropped acid together at Cambridge en route to embracing the high life of London’s 1960s counter culture. For Rock, the psychedelic era seemed to rekindle the spirit of the nineteenth century romantic poets, French symbolists and American Beat poets he adored, and who were arguably the rock stars of their day. 


As the scene around him exploded, Rock hit the ground tripping, helping define a new wave of twentieth century poets as pop came of age in all its self absorbed, dysfunctional glory.Rock’s nose for the zeitgeist and access all areas pass to this world of beautiful outsiders saw him live the rock and roll lifestyle as much as his subjects. 


He photographed Reed for Coney Island Baby (1975), Rock and Roll Heart (1976), and The Blue Mask (1982). He was also chief photographer on The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).Beyond his unholy trinity, Rock’s lens captured the likes of Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music, Mick Jagger, and Andy Warhol, while his diamond shaped study of Queen for their Queen II (1974) album inspired the video for Bohemian Rhapsody. 


Rock moved to New York in the 1970s after having to choose between taking up Bowie’s invitation to photograph him in Berlin or Lou Reed’s offer to join him in NY. “Although Berlin was interesting,” he said in Barney Clay’s film, Shot! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock (2016), “New York was irresistible.”


With punk in the ascendant, Rock captured the street-smart sneers of the Sex Pistols, and, in New York, The Ramones, Talking Heads, Debbie Harry, Joan Jett, and more. He also photographed Madonna as early as 1980.


Rock’s attraction to the calculated artifice of rock and roll poets saw him feed off them in a way that went beyond mere documentation to what he described as being “in the business of evoking the aura” of his subjects. With his sunglasses and elegantly wasted demeanour, Rock could also rise to the occasion on the other side of the camera. 


His hard partying lifestyle was almost the death of him, however. His first marriage to photographer Sheila Rock collapsed, and in 1996, so did he, necessitating heart bypass surgery and a kidney transplant. Once he recovered, Rock cleaned up and bounced back, with his new subjects including Lady Gaga, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Snoop Dogg, as his lens gave life to a new generation of pop art icons.


Michael David Rock was born in Hammersmith, London, to David and Joan (nee Gibbs) Rock. He attended Emanuel School in Battersea, southwest London, and, with his mother’s ambitions guiding him, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he studied Mediaeval and Modern Languages.


Once he discovered the romance of a bohemian lifestyle, he developed what he called “this fantasy of being a French symbolist poet”. He also had an early brush with media notoriety, with his name appearing in print the first time when a local paper report was headlined  ‘Caius student arrested for marijuana’.


Rock first picked up a camera while on LSD, and while he belatedly realised there was no film in it, his mind was opened to photography’s myth making possibilities. After capturing Barrett, another early gig was for the cover of Rory Gallagher’s album, Deuce (1971). It was only after being turned on to Bowie’s Hunky Dory album by Oz magazine co-founder Felix Dennis that Rock latched on to an even newer musical age. Rock bonded with Bowie after a gig in Birmingham, and his adventure began in earnest. 


As his photographs became increasingly historicised, Rockreclaimed his legacy with  several major exhibitions and publications. He also rekindled a working relationship withBowie in 2002 for the lavish photobook, Moonage Daydream: The Life & Times of Ziggy Stardust. 


In 2020, Rock sold prints of previously unseen images of Bowie, Kate Moss, Freddie Mercury, Bryan Ferry and Syd Barrett, donating the proceeds to the NHS to buy protective masks for frontline staff.


Rock’s final cover shot was for Miley Cyrus’ album, Plastic Hearts (2020). The picture was a masterpiece of studied retro cool. Rock might be defined as the man who shot the ‘70s, but his lens spanned half a century of pop myth-making that included his own walk on the wild side.


He is survived by his second wife, Pati and their daughter, Nathalie, as well as four sisters, Carol, Jacqueline, Angela and Laura, and a brother, Don.

The Herald, November 25th 2021




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