Notes from: Shot! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock
There’s few things Mick Rock can’t do when it comes to photography. One is find influence from other photographers, for they hold no interest to him. He doesn’t know how they work. In actuality, he doesn’t really know how he himself works – he sees his job as a transient experience that’s purely in the moment. Last week, the acclaimed Seventies rock photographer took to London’s BFI to discuss the making of his retrospective documentary: Shot! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock.
Shot! feels just like its title when you’re watching it – it’s quick and it’s a hit. That’s mainly because there’s a repetitive snapping sound that discreetly lays behind the dialogue for most of the film. But it’s also due to its variety of subjects: David Bowie, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and Debbie Harry to name a few. But it's Rock himself who takes centre stage – he’s ‘The Man who shot the Seventies’ after all, and this bio-documentary is a partial-lens into how he did that. As a laid-back lad he began with shooting girlfriends, naturally progressing to musicians as he stumbled into gig after gig. Fast-forward a few years to the start of the Seventies and his first iconic image was captured: what in turn ended up being the cover shot for Syd Barrett’s solo album – The Madcap Laughs – released in 1970. He ended up being the eye behind iconic covers, from Lou Reed’s Transformer to The Ramones’s End of the Century.
“I was a rock photographer specifically,” Rock explained. “Which sounded kind of trivial to my parents. They’d often say I was only doing it to avoid getting a real job. And I thought, you’re fucking right. But there weren’t many options that interested me back then. Those times when media first came about were like a sonic age. It was simple – close your eyes and listen to the music. But I also shot it.” Despite the bio-documentary genre to his film, he didn’t want to show “all that boring stuff” about him growing up. It was a focus on his work, his subjects and what they created together. But he’s a smart man – evidently because he graduated from Cambridge University. And that intelligence shows in his images, for he frequently sees his subjects as they see themselves. That point is proven when it comes to Bowie – Rock’s most renowned subject.
Officially labelled as his photographer, Rock was also Bowie’s peer and friend. “I saw David as a moving piece of art,” he expressed at the BFI. “He was always drawing – he was a synthesiser who took many disparate elements and pulled them into focus, into his vision. It was totally unique and it influenced all aspects of arts and culture. He’ll never go away.” And he won’t – for Rock has captured the Starman through images that have shaped our vision and will continue to shape future visions of him. In the documentary, there’s a feature on that iconic shot of Bowie smothering Mick Ronson’s guitar in kisses at a gig in Oxford’s Town Hall, 1972. “Did you get it?” Bowie immediately asked following the show, even though he already knew the answer. Rock captured that moment – not for the purpose of revenue, but for the interest that the scene sparked in his mind. “If you had no responsibilities, and had the time to explore things with your mates, you could do and create a lot,” he admitted.
That’s the main reason Rock “has no interest in photographers”. Yes, he is one – but he doesn’t search amongst his field for inspiration. “What influences me instead is a unique charisma,” he stated. He’s drawn in by “mad poets – the symbolists, the english romantics, and of course the American beats. I’d read about their lifestyles. There was this idea of rock‘n’roll being associated with other forms of stimulation. It certainly was – it synchronised in with the same ideas that derived from literates.” He had his own little clan – “whether you think about Syd, Bowie, Iggy, Lou, Freddie Mercury – and to some extent Roxy Music – they were the epitomes of talent, and they were jolly rotten. I didn’t have a plan when photographing them – I saw them differently each day with fresh, new references, and I just kept my film rolling. I was constantly curious about them.”
To this day, he still doesn’t know how it all happened. “Of course it must have had something to do with my name – Mick Rock,” he explained. “It was total luck, but you do have to ride your luck. Not that I realised I was being lucky – I was essentially at the edge of the culture, but that allowed me to question what the whole glam rock and punk things were.” Shot!’s interest lies in the narrative of each photo explored, but personal elements of Rock’s life are injected by a central focus on his near death encounter and medical trouble that derived from drugs. It only serves to amplify his reflections on the images that defined his perceptions and his lifestyle. That’s why he prefers his photographic work to his videos. “The nice thing about still images is that it’s like a hit. You get in, juggle it around and get the fuck out. You can taste people’s blood when you’re shooting, you can cut people’s hearts out. You can keep an eye on the overall sensibility but project that visually through one shot. And in the process have a lot of fun.”
Rock may have aged, but if there’s one thing his discussion and documentary prove, it’s that he hasn’t changed. He’s still doing what he does best – taking pictures. Musical subjects of today range from The Black Keys to Daft Punk. He has his own organic ability – a constant physical rapport with his subject. His discussions in London’s BFI left his audience compelled. “It doesn’t matter what else is going on,” he concluded. “If I photograph you, I’m with you, and I’m coming for your aura.” If only he had his camera on stage with him – those watching held expressions like sick puppies, craving to be his subject. He has his own little aura that makes anyone surrounding him desire a form of engagement. No wonder his photos are so good.
Shot! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock is out now.
Image: 'Bowie with Lamp & Phone,' 1972, TASCHEN