If not for an LSD trip he took in 1968, at age 19, photographer Mick Rock might never have snapped iconic photos of David Bowie, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Mötley Crüe and a host of other musicians. At the time, he was attending Cambridge University in England, majoring in literature and harboring no photographic ambitions.
But Rock told The Post that on that night, “I was at the home of a friend who had all the toys, including a great record player and camera. Sitting around his room, tripping on blotter acid, I picked up the camera and began playing with it. Every time I clicked, there was an explosion and I saw a lady’s faces in a million iterations.”
Rock fell in love with photography and went from shooting girlfriends to capturing rockers for London publications and Rolling Stone.
“It was a different time,” he said. “I picked up what I needed to know as I went along. I realized that you didn’t need to know much when it came to photography.”
Still, Rock went on to become an image-maker of choice for stars from Freddie Mercury to Joey Ramone. The West Contemporary Editions gallery in London is in the midst of a sale that includes a dozen of his favorite prints.
Here are a few of his top shots and the stories behind them.
Debbie Harry of Blondie
In 1978, Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione wanted to start a women’s fashion magazine. Rock was commissioned to shoot a portrait of Blondie frontwoman Debbie Harry. He did it in his New York studio.
“Debbie and Bowie were the two most photogenic people to come down the pike,” said Rock. “She loved having her picture taken . . . I gave her some attitude with wild hand gestures, and she responded by pulling on the scarf.” Rock remembered that she told him, “If you were a drag queen, your name would be Miss Direction.”
As for the fashion mag, it never happened and Guccione ended up putting the punk princess on the cover of Penthouse. “She didn’t mind,” said Rock.
The Pointer Sisters
It was 1973, the Pointer Sisters were getting ready to play their first British gig and everybody was pumped. Rock went backstage to capture the moment. He was ready — but made to wait longer than expected.
“The makeup artist was good but a pain in the neck,” Rock remembered. “He worked with me for [Bowie’s] ‘Life on Mars’ video [which Rock directed]. David called him Pierre Le Poof. I remember being mad at Pierre that night . . . He used all [the Pointers’] time with makeup. F–king Pierre.”
But then Rock reconsidered: “I only got one set of pictures done, but maybe the time constraint is what energized the whole thing. Look at them — they’re so bright and cheerful.”
A 1986 conversation with bassist Nikki Sixx struck the perfect chord prior to a shoot with Mötley Crüe. “Nikki said to me, ‘Do what you want. Just make it glammy and dramatic,’ ” remembered Rock.
“They were out of their f–king minds with cocaine. They made me look like an amateur — and I was no amateur. At one point during the session, Vince Neil disappeared with some bird.”
As for this image, Rock said, “They were completely wild and fun and there happened to be a bathtub [in the studio]. Somebody told them to get in; so they did and poured in the bubble bath. I thought it was the perfect photo, but for some reason their record label didn’t use it.”
Iggy Pop came to London in 1972 to record the album “Raw Power” at the behest of his pal David Bowie. “Everybody was telling me to go to Iggy’s show at King’s Cross Cinema. I was with Bowie and had free range [for photos] — Iggy was notoriously crazy, charged up, but not quite drooling,” said Rock, adding that Pop was unsuccessfully trying to avoid drugs at the time. “I wound up selling pictures from that show to his record label for the ‘Raw Power’ album cover. They paid me $200. Clearly, my photo didn’t help sell the album. It wound up in the bargain bin months after the release.”
Last year, in the thick of pandemic lockdown, Rock received a call from his friend who had produced Miley Cyrus’ new record.
“He wanted me to fly to LA so that I could shoot Miley for her ‘Plastic Hearts’ album cover. But I had a kidney transplant in 2012 and I wasn’t going to f–king go there and get sick,” said Rock. “Then, soon after, he called again and said he was in New York with Miley.”
As is the norm for Rock, there was not a lot of advance planning — save for a pair of nurses to administer COVID tests — but his pedigree went a long way. “Miley wanted to know about David Bowie. She asked me about the first time I met him,” he said. “It was backstage . . . We were both South London boys, he was charming and minded his manners even at his craziest; we got tight quickly.”
As for Cyrus, “She likes sticking out her tongue and I didn’t object. All of a sudden she began licking the statue. I made sure to get the shot.”
Some of Rock’s best shoots took place with little in the way of advance notice. Such was the case in 1983 when he received a midnight call from Joan Jett’s manager, Kenny Laguna.
“He told me that Joan had done three or four photo shoots, hated the pictures and needed to get the album [art] in,” recalled Rock. “So she came up to the studio with a few changes of clothing and I shot her. I saw her in that jacket and thought that she looked like a female Elvis.” It became the cover of her “I Love Rock ‘n Roll” album.
As for the late-hour vibe, Rock said, “I’m sure there were other things going on that night. I know there were for me.” Asked if he’s referring to illicit substances, Rock replied, “Drugs? I can’t talk about drugs, old boy. But I do have the greatest collection of cocaine still-lifes. It was a different time, darling.”
David Bowie and Lou Reed
Sheer love of rock ’n’ roll paid off when the photographer got invited to a 1972 press gathering for David Bowie and Lou Reed in a suite at the Dorchester Hotel in London.
“I don’t even know if I got paid to take pictures there,” Rock said. “But getting paid was not the point. It was about hanging out with David, who was very ambitious. He talked to me about wanting the big time. Lou” — whose “Transformer” record Bowie was getting ready to produce — “might have been a bit out of it that afternoon. Between them, he and David were very chatty but they did not talk to anyone else. Most of the time, David had a cigarette in hand . . . and Lou looked like he just stepped off the campus of Syracuse University [Reed’s alma mater].”
Bowie was something of a muse for the photographer. Said Rock: “Bowie was always dressing up. I shot him in 72 different outfits over 21 months.”
Fin DAC collaboration
As far as Rock is concerned, a series of images he did with spray-paint artist Fin DAC are more about the content, artfulness and context than the photos themselves (which Fin DAC, not Rock, snapped).
“A monkey could take those pictures,” he said. The photos show limited edition works depicting Rock’s images on T-shirts worn by a model. Fin DAC paints each piece.
“The point was to make the T-shirts, put them on the person and do the art,” Rock said. “They’re cool. Plus we split the money, we split the publicity and we split the co-ownership.” Iterations featuring David Bowie, Lou Reed and Debbie Harry are being auctioned off for charity.
All prints are available to see and purchase at West-Contemporary-Editions.com.