Life lessons from legendary photographer Mick Rock on the eve of his New York exhibition
Mick Rock is probably not the first name that pops to mind if you're thinking about seeking some career advice. Dubbed the world over as "the man who shot the Seventies," Rock is known as much for his own rock star reputation—he claims his biggest achievement is that he's still standing—as he is for the photographs he took of countless lead singers and wayward musicians during the indelible era of punk. While that might be the timeframe that catapulted his wild success, Rock has endured through it all and continues to be one of the most sought-after lensmen in the music industry today, shooting everyone from Lady Gaga to Tommy Lee.
However, when we caught up with the man himself to discuss the opening of his NYC exhibition at the W Downtown—aptly titled "Rocked"—the legendary photographer inadvertently shed some light on the keys to remaining so relevant over the years. Describing himself as "some leftover from a forgotten era, way before rock 'n' roll ever showed up," his surprisingly humble attitude sends an even more powerful message.
One of the most valuable snippets of wisdom we gleaned from the conversation sums up the passion that Rock's portraits exude. He sagely imparts, "Follow your obsession, because at worst you'll build up a collection. Down the road that collection could have a value. You might make piss-all money right now, but one day you might make a bundle." Rock's obsession found him touring with bands like Thin Lizzy, be-friending Syd Barrett and becoming David Bowie's official photographer. His personal relationships with the bands undoubtedly played a part in his success, but for Rock it's as simple as this: "I like to shoot, it's good for my psyche, it's good for my fucking soul."
For a fan of music in general, photographing any budding musician can still be an exciting moment, but it's not their actual tunes that pique Rock's curiosity. "I'm not looking for the truth, or reality, I'm interested in their aura, what the music gives off, and what their consciousness gives off as performing agents, as artists." Despite his genuine ability to connect on a creative level, occasionally paying the bills is also a factor. Another lesson Rock offers is essentially to learn the dance but don't sell out.
Likening himself to an "uptown prostitute" at times, he extends this insight: "As like any great hooker, if you pay her enough money she will be in love with you for a certain amount of time. Well, I can be in love with you." The magic he seems to impart while shooting, the work he allows himself to take, all of this boils down to a man who knows his craft extremely well. Claiming his rich career was in no way built by design, he also knows you have to study your profession and be willing to compromise.
Arguably a huge part of what allows Rock to transcend time is his ability to go with the flow. He doesn't totally even completely understand his own celebrity, but rather than become reclusive or keep his surplus of unpublished photos to himself, he rolls with the hand life continues to deal him. Slightly puzzled at the recent French Vogue feature on his oeuvre, he embraces his "ghosts of yore" and says poetically, "The past has paved the way for me to come again."
In addition to the traveling exhibition on view at the W, for which he specifically shot Janelle Monae, Theophilus London and several other contemporary stars, Rock plans to publish a set of limited-edition books that will unearth archived photos. First will be a dedicated book on Thin Lizzy (for which he's chosen to get the approval of Phil Lynott's daughter Sarah before publishing), followed by a book with Lou Reed called "Believe It or Not: Transformer" and finally a book on the godfather of punk rock, the iconic Iggy Pop. In the 1970s, there wasn't an abundance of outlets like today's blog-fueled industry, so for Rock, this is a chance to "get all these pictures out there that people haven't seen."
"Rocked" will be on view through 29 December 2011 at the W Downtown before moving on to W Hotels in Washington, D.C. and Seattle.