Look Out Your Window: Mick Rock on David Bowie

More than once, Mick Rock will begin a sentence, “David is…” then correct himself: “…David was.” As we speak, it is three weeks since Bowie died, and the photographer admits he is still having to get used to the idea of referring to his friend in the past tense. “That he’s gone just…completely blows my brain off.”

Bowie had been much on Rock’s mind in recent months, even before the sudden announcement of his death on January 10, two days after the release of his extraordinary final album, Blackstar. Last September saw the first publication of The Rise Of David Bowie: 1972-73, a lovingly produced collection from Taschen gathering together some of the 5,000 photographs Rock estimates he took of the singer during that intense 18-month period four decades ago, as Bowie transformed himself from a struggling young London songwriter into a global phenomenon, by metamorphosing into the interplanetary rock messiah Ziggy Stardust.

The book was initially released in a deluxe Collector’s Edition co-signed by Rock and Bowie – cutely, that numbered run, sheathed in a turquoise case the exact shade of the eye shadow Bowie-Ziggy sports in the holographic cover, was limited to 1,972 copies. Originally priced $700, copies can now be spotted on eBay for anything between $4,000 and $10,000. “I’m glad I’ve got my stash,” Rock says, bleakly bemused. “I can retire off the copies I’ve got. The pictures weren’t worth much back when I was taking them, I can tell you that.”

Now, though, the long-planned trade edition is being published for mere mortals, and while the price is far less eye-watering, Rock’s collection remains no less mouth-watering.

Looking through the 300 or so images, most never previously published, the impression is of a photographer and subject practically joined at the hip. Rock captures Bowie reaching full flight on stage in pictures such as the justly famed “guitar fellatio” shot: Bowie’s wild androgynous alien insect going down in impulsive homage before the prowess of Mick Ronson, the stalwart guitarist who looked like a handsome glam bricklayer and played like a swashbuckling electric Musketeer.

The picture sent confused shockwaves of indignation and delight coursing through the inky-fingered readers of the music press, and, Rock acknowledges, did more than any other to put his name on the map as a rock photographer. But what’s most revealing here is how quickly and cannily Bowie gauged the image’s impact: flipping to subsequent live shots finds him knowingly replaying the “spontaneous” pose in evermore outrageous variations. In a similar piece of stagecraft, Rock reveals that Bowie would instruct his people to make sure there were no barriers in front of the stage. “I’ve got all these great shots of him interacting directly with the audience, encouraging them to press right up against the stage.” Looking at the pictures, you can practically hear him singing the climax to “Rock And Roll Suicide”: “Gimme your hands, ’cause you’re wonderful…”

As ultra-vivid as the performance photographs and voguing promo shots are, however, it is the dozens of pictures capturing Bowie off-duty that are most striking today: candid scenes of life in the inbetween moments backstage and on the road. Bowie gearing up for shows and coming down afterwards. Bowie eating, travelling, even sleeping. Bowie half-naked applying his own golden make-up in a cheap mirror in some municipal building’s tiny dressing room, his table crammed with cigarettes, bananas and half-eaten apples, bottles of wine and countless vibrant tubs of face powder and paint. The clash between exoticism and mundanity is striking: for anyone who remembers the 1970s, nothing sums up Bowie’s impact quite like the shots of him and Ronson in their full pomp while eating a British Rail lunch in the dining car of a train to Aberdeen.

All these pictures speak of astonishing intimacy and trust. “David never said ‘No,’” Rock says. “He never told me he didn’t like any of my pictures. He was a great encourager.” But even more remarkable than the access Rock gained is that he ever thought to be there at all, and recognised this was a process worth documenting. When they first met, in March 1972, Bowie was by no means a star.

By that stage, he had been trying to make it for almost a decade. He released his first single in 1962, when he was 17, but it wasn’t until 1969 that Bowie caused a real ripple with “Space Oddity.” Cannily timed to coincide with the Apollo 11 moon landing, the single made the UK Top Five, but, like many serious music fans, Rock, who was studying languages and literature at Cambridge at the time, dismissed it as a novelty from a one-hit wonder. “I barely registered ‘Space Oddity,’” he says. “I thought of it as a gimmick record.”

Rock’s ears first pricked up while working in the offices of the underground magazine Oz, when someone passed him Bowie’s 1971 album, Hunky Dory – it was the singer’s fourth LP, and, while recognised as a classic today, had, like its predecessors, sold few copies at the time. (It was only after the breakout success of 1972’s The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, that it became a retrospective hit.)

“‘Life On Mars?’ really hit me,” Rock says. “But what also really registered was the Velvet Underground references he’d put in. Y’know, the Velvets hadn’t exactly sold a billion records. But I was a fan, one of those know-it-alls who’d discovered the Velvets and The Stooges, so I thought…Hmmm.” Through his relationship with Bowie, Rock would soon meet both the Velvet Underground’s Lou Reed and Stooges leader Iggy Pop, both of whom Bowie would help make seminal albums in London in 1972, using his success to revitalise their stalled careers.

Attempting to make a career as a writer who also took photographs (“It was cheaper for the publications”), Rock hustled two commissions for pieces on Bowie, one for Rolling Stone, and one for Club International, the softcore title by Britain’s porn pioneer Paul Raymond. “A mate of mine was art director, and they were starting a little section up front where they wanted a little bit more than just the skin. And David had just started to go out saying, ‘Look at me, I do it both ways…’ kind of thing, which seemed to get their attention. He’d learned by that point the music alone wasn’t enough to get people’s attention, necessarily.”

Rock first met Bowie backstage at Birmingham Town Hall, where Bowie played to an audience of maybe 400. “I went backstage, asked if I could take a couple of pictures and he joked about my name – and I joked back that my name was actually my name, and his, of course, wasn’t. And we got on. Then I went back to his place in Beckenham a couple of days later for our first real session.”

Bonding over Syd Barrett – an obsession of Bowie’s, Rock had previously interviewed the ex-Pink Floyd frontman, and taken the cover photograph for his 1970 album The Madcap Laughs – it was on this day that Rock took the picture that cemented their association: Bowie, orange feather-cut flaming sharply against the soft green leaves beyond his window, gazing into a mirror while his reflection gazes back out at us, triply framed by mirror, window frame and the frame of the photograph. When he first saw the shot, Rock recalls Bowie telling his manager, “Mick sees me like I see myself.” In 2014, Bowie would use the image as one of three decade-leaping mirror shots for the cover of his career-spanning compilation album Nothing Has Changed.

“From there,” Rock goes on, “I continued off and on across the next 20 months, working with him consistently, shooting, then directing the music videos – although, there weren’t music videos at the time we made them – for “Life On Mars” John I’m Only Dancing, Space Oddity and Jean Genie ,which were all done on a moment’s notice, no budget, no plan. It was a train that I happened to be on, and once it got rolling, it didn’t stop. It’s only looking back I realise how young we were, and how fast the whole thing moved. David was on a blue tear. That first meeting was March; about two-and-a-half months later, the “Starman” single made an enormous impact due to the Top Of The Pops performance; then about a month after that, the Ziggy Stardust album was released. I think it was released the day before I took ‘the guitar fellatio shot,’ at Oxford Town Hall. By then, there were 1,000 people there.

“They started to talk about me as ‘Bowie’s official photographer’ – it was part of the hype. Y’know: when we went on the American tour that autumn, he had three bodyguards, and he didn’t really need any bodyguards. But, by the time he returned to Britain, he definitely needed bodyguards. There was a game being played: David has an official photographer, David has bodyguards, it was all theatre. And all part of this projection, which Ziggy was all about, that David was making himself a star. By then, all this activity was just swirling around David – the things he was doing with Lou and Iggy. He was like a ringmaster.”

That whirl came to an end when Bowie did what Bowie always did and moved on: changing his hair, changing his band, changing his music, changing his producer – and changing his photographer. After being there at the beginning, and spending such an intense period working so closely together, I ask Rock if he ever felt a twang of exes jealousy when he saw Bowie working later with other photographers.

“No. I was too busy. And I actually had the option. David invited me to go to Berlin with him in 1977. I got two phonecalls. One from David, and then the next day one from Lou, and they clashed, I couldn’t do both: either I was going to go to Berlin, or, I was going to New York to work with Lou. And as fascinating as the one possibility was, I couldn’t resist the lure of Lou Reed in New York. David had introduced me to Lou – but Lou had shown me things that nobody else could ever have shown me.

“And you know, when David worked with someone like Sukita (Masayoshi Sukita, who shot Bowie over several decades, most famously for the cover of 1977’s “Heroes” album), what they got were great studio shots. But I got all this great candid stuff. You can easily argue it was fortuitous, that I was in the right place at the right time – but the fact is, I was in the right place at the right time, and nobody else was. I don’t think that means I’m a prophet, but I was where I wanted to be. I don’t really know how it happened, other than that I was totally immersed, a true believer, you might say. I was there, and I bore witness.”

For that, we should be grateful. The pictures Rock took across 1972-73 don’t simply depict a singer seizing his moment, but document an artist creating it. They place us in the eye of the storm as Bowie became Bowie, painting a  Technicolour lightning bolt across the sleepy grey face of Britain.

A version of this story appeared in The Royal Photographic Society Journal, April 2016