electrifying early photos of david bowie

We speak to legendary lensman Mick Rock about being David Bowie's unofficial "official photographer," and about documenting the birth of Ziggy Stardust in his new photo book.

by Jane Helpern
09 September 2015, 5:40pm

In 1972, a glittering extraterrestrial being touched down on Earth that would forever alter the course of rock 'n' roll. David Bowie released his earth-shaking album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars on 16 June, 1972, and with it a lean, gleaming, writhing spaceman who flamboyantly danced the line between boy and girl, human and alien. On the front line of this glamorous spectacle was photographer Mick Rock, the Cambridge-educated Brit who is today best known as "the man who shot the seventies," but who began his career as a spindly photojournalist at Oz magazine. Documenting history, for Rock, was a serendipitous consequence of getting to hang out with his idols-turned-buddies Iggy Pop, David Bowie and Lou Reed.Now, more than 40 years later, Rock is releasing a limited-edition photo book through Taschen. The Rise of David Bowie: 1972-1973 includes hundreds of previously unseen images of Bowie from the 20 months between 1972 and 1973 when Rock was his official photographer ("official," Rock explains, was rather a loose term). Only 1972 copies of the book were printed, each one signed by both Bowie and Rock.

Last week, we met up with the legendary photographer at the Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles for an epic storytelling session - about Bowie, doing whatever you wanted in the days before fax machines, and his new book and coinciding exhibition, Shooting for Stardust: David Bowie and Co., opening at the Taschen Gallery in Los Angeles tomorrow.

You've been called Bowie's "official" photographer? How official was it?
The record labels had in-house photographers, but a lot of the artists wanted to work with people they knew. No one employed me. And [Bowie's] manager never paid anybody for anything. But by virtue of what we were doing, people started to take notice. There was a certain photo session that we did very early on, the one of [Bowie] in the mirror. That was when he said to his manager, "Mick sees me the way I see myself." That was the glue. That's when they took me to America. They didn't pay me, but they paid for all the expenses. Back then, you didn't need much money to live.

So you were the official unofficial go-to?
I was often the only photographer around at that time - there wasn't much media. Everyone liked the idea of an artist who wasn't that well known having an official photographer. It was part of the hype. There's a great picture of David dressed all in white at The Plaza Hotel. He had three bodyguards around him. At that time, you couldn't have dragged people off the street to bother him. But by the end of the tour, everything had changed. When he got back to England it was complete pandemonium. What's interesting, looking back on the pictures, is that you can see the audience. At first, they were kind of staring at him. But by the end, there are people getting up on stage and grabbing him.

You've said that you considered yourself the guardian of his image. What do you mean by that?
I considered myself "a" guardian, not "the" guardian. I'm very careful about the distinction, because David worked with a lot of photographers. To be quite honest with you, I wasn't interested in some fucking editor's opinion. I was only interested in what Iggy, Lou and David thought. Like with all these characters, I identified heavily with them. I wanted them to love what I was doing. I've got a lot of pictures that I won't release to this day. Even when I was broke, I would never do that. And they were all people that I liked, and that I had close relationships with. That line of exploitation that we all walk - you're exploiting me for a story, I'm exploiting the acts, the acts are exploiting all kinds of people - it's the nature of this animal that we're all tied up in. But there is a certain responsibility that comes with it.

Everyone is wild about your photo of Bowie and Mick Ronson eating on the train. Have you figured out why?
I don't know - you tell me! I think one of the reasons is that everything is so mundane, the surroundings and the blandness of the food (peas and boiled potatoes), except for these two very exotic creatures. Of course, David didn't have any eyebrows, so that added to the flavor. One day he had them, and the next day he came to lunch and he'd shaved them off. That image was first published quite small in the Moonage Daydream Bowie book I did. I thought it was a minor picture, but it turns out I may have sold more prints of that than anything else. It's a curious one. I also think there's another little layer to it: it's the momentary glance between them that looks very conspiratorial, as if they've got the tiger by the tail - or rock'n' roll by the tail - and they're shaking it. Whatever little media there was at the time, they had it on overload.

We all want to know, so I have to ask: how long did Bowie take to get ready?
Mostly, he did his own makeup. In the book, there are lots of pictures of him getting ready. One of my favorites is when it looks like he's about to rip his mask off, but of course, he isn't. It would take him a while, but he got pretty efficient. The hair had to be popped up, and he had a wardrobe lady (Mick Ronson's wife) who would help with the hair and makeup and organize the clothes. David would change costumes quite a lot. Over that 20-month period - I actually counted once - I shot David in 74 different outfits.

It's safe to say that your work has never been a popular as it is today. What's the secret?
Who the fuck was going to interview a rock photographer back then? Who was even interested? The good thing about the internet was that after I had my heart bypass surgery in Christmas of 96, the interest in classic rock photography like mine was starting to pop up in galleries. Of course, the machine needed to be fed, the beast kept growing and growing. I also had a lot of great subjects, from Syd through Lou through Iggy to David to Debbie. I do believe that everybody has a destiny. But not everybody develops the capacity to gel with their destiny. Whereas with me, the name is "Mick Rock." It looks like there was some trickery going on up there.

What's next?
Well, there's the Bowie book. I'm very excited about this book. Over 40 percent of the book is never-before-seen pictures. And there's a VICE documentary being made about me, and I'm filming my Ovation TV show [On the Record with Mick Rock]. I want to do a book of cats, but everyone keeps wanting me to do more rock books.

'The Rise of David Bowie: 1972-1973' launches later this month, through Taschen. 'Shooting for Stardust: David Bowie and Co.' opens at the Taschen Gallery in Los Angeles on September 10.



Text Jane Helpern
Images courtesy Taschen

david bowie
Ziggy Stardust
Mick Rock