SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Mick Rock is known as the man who shot the '70s - shot, as in photographed. You've probably seen the pictures - David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, a shirtless Iggy Pop in a gravity-defying back bend, the cover of Lou Reed's "Transformer" album, Roxy music, Queen and on and on and on. Some of those images and many more are now in a traveling exhibition that's in Washington, D.C. It is being presented not by a museum or gallery, but by the W Hotel chain, where Mick Rock sometimes shoots performance videos. NPR's Claire O'Neill has the story of a man and his times.
CLAIRE O'NEILL, BYLINE: Picture this: A big room in one of those swanky boutique hotels. Everyone's all dressed up. The women are in heels, the men are in suits - remember this is D.C. - all people with special access. They're holding cocktails and mingling, waiting for a little concert to start. And surrounding them are these huge back-lit photos of rock icons like David Bowie and Iggy Pop, though no one really seems to pay them much attention to them.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Thank you all for coming out. Without any further ado, here's one of your favorite bands...
O'NEILL: Then the music starts and it's some, whatever, L.A. band, and the crowd is politely appreciative.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
O'NEILL: You can't help but wonder, what would Iggy say about this scene? There's one person in the room who might know - the guy who took the photos. Mick Rock - yes, that's really his name, born Michael Rock - who shot some of the '70s.
MICK ROCK: Some clever bugger journalist, when I put out my first book in England in '95, there was the headline - the man who shot the '70s. And somehow people just picked up on it. I thought, well, I never shot Journey or REO Speedwagon or the Carpenters.
O'NEILL: But he did shoot Debbie and Lou and David. He refers to them like they're neighbors down the street but, of course, he's talking about Debbie Harry, as in Blondie; Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground; David Bowie. His pals.
ROCK: I was not an outsider. This was my life too. I mean, I didn't play an instrument but I lived the life. You know, I stay up all night and sleep all day.
CHRIS MURRAY: Mick was cheeky and humorous and clever. And I'm not surprised he was able to develop relationships with all of these important artists, because he was just a great guy to have around.
O'NEILL: Curator Chris Murray used to own Govinda Gallery in D.C., where he gave Mick Rock a solo show in the 1990s. Today they're friends.
MURRAY: There was a much more dynamic relationship between musical artists and visual artists at the time. You know, the people photographing them before that were these gumshoe, kind of real working-class, you know, OK, let's get our shot and let's get out of here. You know, that's why the photos you see in newspapers would be just like they were. But when people like Mike Rock came along, things changed.
O'NEILL: Now, Mick Rock is in his 60s, but he remembers the '70s well - or parts of them. He never planned on being a photographer. He was studying languages and literature at Cambridge University when a series of right-place-right-time events led to a fellow named Davie Jones. That is David Bowie, who at the time was still playing shows for a few hundred people.
ROCK: So, I rode that wagon. I just was there, and I came very cheap. It's not like today. Back then it was, well, it was the age of sex, drugs and rock and roll, of course.
O'NEILL: And gender-bending, and fashion, and experimentation. Of course, he wasn't the only guy with a camera. But unlike today, back then, not everyone had a camera. Having one, and knowing how to use it, or knowing how to pretend at least, that got you access.
ROCK: Really the key session was the session I did with a gentleman I'd gotten to know in Cambridge who was from Cambridge. His name was Syd Barrett.
O'NEILL: As in Pink Floyd.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EMILY PLAY")
SYD BARRETT: (Singing) Emily tries but misunderstands...
ROCK: He looked like a poet maudit. He just had that romantic aura about him. And I just scored a wide-angle lens for my very battered Pentax and, you know, had a funny little reflector with a light bulb in it to light the thing. So, when I had daylight film and I was shooting inside and it was low light. So, everything was wrong about the session - grainy film. Whatever the results, you know, my ignorance only added, the fact that I didn't know too much. But I could focus. They're all in focus. I will say that. And I had this magical session and these photographs, which have never gone away - certainly I gained more knowledge but I don't think I ever took any better pictures.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TERRAPIN")
BARRETT: (Singing) I really love you and I mean you. The star above you crystal blue. Well, oh, baby, my hair's on end about you...
O'NEILL: Mick Rock would fall in love with his subjects and with the images.
ROCK: There was not a scintilla of cynicism in me about anything. And I was not owned by a corporation. I was not owned by a publication. My loyalties were always to the acts. I was following my enthusiasm. I was not, you know, I am an image master. You're talking about some kid in his early 20s.
O'NEILL: And his 30s and his 40s. By the '90s, though, the sex, drugs and rock and roll had caught up with him. He was photographing to survive and had a reputation for being - as he puts it - out of order. A lot of his friends had died and, for him, it took three heart attacks and quadruple bypass surgery to clean up.
ROCK: Well, that changed everything. I mean, when I do the session I get the same excitement, and it's I go back into a certain head. But it's all coffee. I always think that I knocked on heaven's door in '96 and I was told to bugger off. They didn't take in people like me. So, I had to hang around a bit to clean up my karma, to scrub my reputation.
O'NEILL: Mick Rock still has that rock and roll vibe - messy hair, shaded Ray-Bans, jean jacket. Maybe it's less rock than roll these days though. Early nights - he has to get up for yoga in the morning. He chants and meditates.
ROCK: And now I might even do a cat book.
O'NEILL: Cats are cute, but, come on, they're not as cool as David Bowie. Claire O'Neill, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "QUEEN BITCH")
DAVID BOWIE: (Singing) Still don't know what I was waiting for, and my time was running wild, a million dead-end streets. And every time I thought I'd...
SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW CREDITS)
SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon, Mr. Bowie.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.