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Mick Rock obituary

Personal photographer to David Bowie who was also known as the Man Who Shot the 70s
Mick Rock, photographed in New York in 2006.
Mick Rock, photographed in New York in 2006. Photograph: Stephen Chernin/AP
Mick Rock, photographed in New York in 2006. Photograph: Stephen Chernin/AP

Few rock’n’roll stars have understood the symbiotic relationship between music and image better than David Bowie and, in the photographer Mick Rock, Bowie found the perfect creative partner. Commissioned to do a photojournalism piece by the London office of Rolling Stone magazine, Rock went to a Bowie gig at Birmingham town hall in March 1972, and struck up an immediate rapport with the glam rock guru, just as he was metamorphosing into his Ziggy Stardust persona. It kicked open the door to Rock’s brilliant future, and he would earn the sobriquet “The Man Who Shot the 70s”.

Rock, who has died aged 72, became Bowie’s personal photographer as his profile soared with the release of his fifth studio album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, in June 1972, and captured some of the best-remembered images of the mercurial star. These included the picture of Bowie and the guitarist Mick Ronson eating lunch on a train to Aberdeen, and the famously provocative “fellatio” shot of the duo onstage at Oxford town hall. As Rock later explained, probably with tongue in cheek: “All David was trying to do – and he explained it to me many years later when we did the book Moonage Daydream – was bite the guitar.”

Rock enjoyed uniquely intimate access to Bowie (“I got him in his knickers, just camping around”), and Bowie’s trailblazing charisma drew other musicians such as Lou Reed and Iggy Pop into his orbit.

Rock was ever-present with his camera. He shot the definitive photo of a panda-eyed, wistful-looking Reed for the cover of his hit solo album Transformer (1972), and bagged the dramatic cover image of a bare-torsoed Pop for Iggy and the Stooges’ Raw Power LP (1973).

His sleeve photo for Queen’s Queen II (1974) memorably echoed an image of Marlene Dietrich from the 1932 film Shanghai Express (“No one was ever more glam than the divine Ms Dietrich,” Rock said), and Queen revisited it in their video for Bohemian Rhapsody in 1975.

Having travelled to New York on tour with Bowie in 1972, Rock became increasingly infatuated with the city and moved there in 1977. “There’s no doubt that New York was darker, more depraved than London,” he told the interviewer Barney Hoskyns. “Lou Reed took me to places you’d never have found in London.” Rock inevitably found himself photographing such icons of the New York scene as the Ramones and Blondie’s Debbie Harry, and cherished his shot of Mötley Crüe in a bubble bath (“the dirtiest, the naughtiest band of the 80s, God bless ’em”).

Rock didn’t like to talk about his background and upbringing, commenting that “I don’t normally get into that because I don’t think it’s necessary,” but it was generally accepted that he had been born in Hammersmith, London, his parents Joan and David Rock, the latter a civil servant at the Ministry of Labour. However, Rock shed a different light on it in a 2017 interview with the website the Talks. He described how he had been conceived when his unhappily married mother had an affair with an American airman, who subsequently returned to the US. He claimed he had had two birth certificates, the first of which named him as Michael Edward Chester Smith.

Rock’s portrait of David Bowie, Earls Court, London 1973.
Rock’s portrait of David Bowie, Earls Court, London 1973. Photograph: © Mick Rock

However, it was as Michael Rock that he attended the independent Emanuel school in Battersea, before winning a scholarship to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he took a degree in medieval and modern languages. At Cambridge he first started to experiment with photography, acquiring “a battered Pentax camera from a mate for 40 quid”, and there he met the local boy Syd Barrett, a founding member of Pink Floyd. Rock would photograph Barrett for his first solo album, The Madcap Laughs (1970), with the back cover featuring a naked woman, and also shot the centrefold photo for Pink Floyd’s 1971 album Meddle.

Rock immersed himself enthusiastically in the lifestyle of the artists he photographed, and admitted that “by the end of the 80s, early 90s, my cocaine problem had got completely out of order. I could still shoot, but the rest of my life was a wreck.” He divorced his first wife, Sheila (also a photographer), and married again, to Pati (who worked in real estate).

In 1996 he underwent quadruple bypass surgery and a kidney transplant, his medical bill paid by the Rolling Stones’ former manager Allen Klein, and subsequently enjoyed a career rebirth. He had been irked by the “Man Who Shot the 70s” tag, considering that it made him sound obsolete, and he photographed swathes of newer artists including Snow Patrol, the Black Keys, Snoop Dogg, Foo Fighters, Alicia Keys, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Janelle Monáe, Rufus Wainwright, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus and Pharrell Williams.

In addition to his still photography, he created several memorable videos with Bowie, for Life on Mars, John I’m Only Dancing, Jean Genie and Space Oddity, and Bowie gave his endorsement to Rock’s books Blood and Glitter: Glam – an Eyewitness Account (2001), Moonage Daydream: The Life and Times of Ziggy Stardust (2002) and The Rise of David Bowie 1972-1973 (2015). He also published books in collaboration with Debbie Harry, Iggy Pop, and the Queen members Brian May and Roger Taylor.

Rock was profiled in Barney Clay’s documentary SHOT! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock (2016). He was chief photographer on the films The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus.

An enthusiastic raconteur, Rock stressed that his work always stemmed from an admiration for the artists he worked with. “To me these guys were like Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Shelley, Keats, Coleridge, the Beats … I have been respectful because I love these people and I feel I’m a sort of image guardian.”

He is survived by Pati and their daughter, Nathalie.

Mick Rock, photographer, born 21 November 1948; died 18 November 2021