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Mick Rock

Wow. I love my job. This week I got to speak with somebody whose work a lot of you will be familiar with. Mick Rock is a photographer whose pictures have graced the covers of many records and promo campaigns. David Bowie's Space Oddity. Lou Reed's Transformer. Iggy Pop's Raw Power. All Mick Rock's. He is legendary for taking shots that capture the essence of each performer. Some of them, Bowie in particular, became so comfortable and confident with him, he hired Rock to work with him steadily for years producing all the major promotional material that Bowie put out.

Rock was recruited to put together a photo package for the DVD release of one of the year's most controversial movies, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things. This movie's screenplay was written and produced by Asia Argento (best known in America for the movie XXX). It was based on a novel by JT LeRoy who has become a questionable figure of late. It is been suggested that the name JT LeRoy is not a real person but rather a contrived character who has been the face of some very interesting novels. Who is the real author? People have suggested that it is actually one of the people who have surrounded LeRoy and that the public face of LeRoy is actually a series of stand-ins. If this is all true, this has been one of the most elaborate hoaxes of recent memory. For those of you who don't know what this is all about, check it out on the Internet because it's involved and very interesting.

I had the privilege of speaking with Mick Rock this week about his photos for the movie package as well as his career which is still going strong. Rock is in demand for many projects and read ahead to see where his work will be seen next. 

antiMUSIC: Hi Mick. How are you doing?

Mick Rock: I'm doing pretty good…lots to do before I go away for a few weeks, bits and pieces…but we're here to talk about the movie…

antiMUSIC: It's a real honor and a privilege to be able to speak with you. My teens were spent immersed in your work. I think you were the first photographer that I ever was aware of in terms of rock photography where you became just as much of a star unto themselves. Your body of work is just so very impressive. Thanks so much for doing this. 

Mick Rock: You're very kind. I think you may be overstating it but I'll take it.

antiMUSIC: By what means did you come to work on this project?

Mick Rock: Originally because I did the JT…I suppose the only way to describe it is the JT gang because I did it…I think in all I did one or two…about four or five shoots with them. I had an inventory as it were, not just of the JT figure, him/herself, but also of Speedy, but the thing is I have a collection of images. Then I also got to know Sal over at Palm Pictures so when this came up, Sal asked me if I'd care to collaborate with them and supply some imagery. And I said, of course, I was happy to do that. And of course, I was to take a whole load of pictures of Asia, as well.

antiMUSIC: What was the first contact and how did it come about?

Mick Rock: I think it came about through Liz, who works for me here in NY. Somehow she had a connection with them and then JT---whoever JT is (laughs), was, will be started to email me and actually the first thing I did was to shoot the paperback book cover of The Heart is Deceitful which is the shot of the boy's body with the black hand on it against a red background. And then a while later, I did a session with JT in person and got to know, well…Speedy was there too. Emily or whatever she is calling herself at the moment, I'm not sure. So I did shoot her as well. There was some correspondence and then, the JT conglomerate did an interview with me for the NY press. Then a shoot in Napa Valley and then there was another shoot in NY, I think for Vanity Fair. Then one other shoot at another reading where there was a whole…I did several shoots and then one last August. They did an interview with me for the London Times in conjunction with a big exposition I was doing in London. I built up this inventory if you like, of images and, but also they had written, they had interviewed me and had written these articles, and I say they because obviously there's this whole identity issue. So I don't know who was interviewing me now, actually who was on the phone with me or emailing me. I don't think anyone quite sure how that was all going down. Anyway I got to know them to some degree, not only as a photographer, but also as an interviewee. Anyway, obviously I had some fun doing it and that's how…when I got to know Sal and this project came up. In the meantime I also got to know Asia, so I was quite happy to work on the package with them, providing imagery and so that's how it all really came about. 

antiMUSIC: At what point were you familiar with the controversy? 

Mick Rock: No, not all. I bought into it completely. Even with the article came out in NY Magazine, late last year, when I think were the first rumblings, or the first that I was aware of. They'd been soliciting people to write supportive pieces and I actually did write---somewhere I've got it - a supportive piece where I said "only someone who had actually been photographed by me could have written about what it was like to be photographed by me. And of course I realized that Emily was always around for these things. So anyway, finally it broke wide open earlier this year. But I can't say that I really say that I have any issue with it. I think "Ooh, that was kind of clever". They managed to pull this off. …we all bought into it…a lot of people bought into it, including people like David Bowie as well as Debbie Harry, and Lou Reed who both did readings of the book. So you know…a whole bunch of other people bought into it as well. When I say they, I suspect, above all, it was Emily was pretty clever about the way she maneuvered. But in the end, as I've said in a couple of other interviews, the books stand on their own. So in a way, does it really matter who wrote them, and does the duplicity matter? I mean most authors are pretty duplicitous in some way, aren't they? It's just the nature of an artist.

antiMUSIC: What can you tell us about the shots that are in there?

Mick Rock: There are ones that I shot at the Chelsea Hotel which are really, I think, I mean actually I've been including one particular shot in a load of exhibitions of mine. So I mean, people are big fans of the picture, and of course it wasn't really all of the actual author. Then there were the pictures in the Napa Valley. They were actually taken in the country house of Danielle Steele…somehow there was a connection with one of her sons, and somehow this whole thing got…obviously it's based in San Francisco, and they're based in there, so that's how all that was able to go…and that's actually where I first met Asia. And if you see the booklet you'll see pictures of JT, and to me JT is still JT, as far as subject matter in the photograph. Whether or not she wrote the book is a separate issue. I mean apparently she didn't, apparently it was Speedy…Emily. I bought into completely, but then I always did. That's the nature of…when I take a picture, I'm going to love you anyway. I'm going to buy into it. I mean I bought into David Bowie, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Queen…and I mean all the characters early on who weren't particularly well known but who in general were not using their given name, David Bowie is David Jones. Lou Reed that's not his real name. Iggy is really Jimmy Osterberg. Freddy Mercury is Farrokh Bulsara. This whole identity thing, this messing around with identities, is playing around with imagery, this androgynous ambiguity. This has all been part of what attracted me in many ways to the music business and it's really all I've known since I was about 20 anyway. People have asked me if it bothers me and it doesn't really bother me at all actually, I just go...ooh that's interesting (laughs). It's the sleight of hand. It's what artists do, and it's certainly what rock and rollers do. They project an image which is a part of them amplified, but obviously a long way from being the totality of their personality. It's just one particular aspect that's amplified. That whole issue of identity of you know, what is the real person, it doesn't really bother me. Reality for me is more about intensity and focus. The intensity…if strong enough that it's real, it BECOMES real. And that's really what artists are about. It's about focus and intensity and out of that focus and intensity comes this piece of creativity, so obviously the bigger picture is a fascinating picture but in the end you have to ask yourself : do the books stand up on their own anyway? And I think they do. It's a great story. I think, I immediately wanted to…when I started to realize "oh, this is a sleight of hand" I wanted to revisit Orson Welles "F for Fake" which is a great documentary about one of the great art forges of all time. And there are these remarkable artists out there, there are a couple of others, who can absolutely reproduce any type of art that you can name, whether it be…like a Jackson Pollock although I would think that that would be incredibly difficult. For instance there has been a Norman Rockwell piece found recently. There had been a version of it in a garage for years. Recently the children of the guy who owned the print, knocked down a wall in the house and found what is really the original one apparently. The guy was divorcing from his wife and he didn't want her to grab the art. I don't know how many pieces of art he had, but he them duplicated and he gave her the fakes and hid the real ones, and it's the fakes that have been doing the rounds for quite a few years. And so this whole issue of what is real…well that's all part of the fun of it I think. 

antiMUSIC: Now if we can turn the focus to you for a few minutes. You studied languages at school. How did you make the leap from languages to photography?

Mick Rock: Pause. Well. I think I was high, to be honest with you. (laughs) Then I started playing with a friend's camera and I think the intensification factor is what imprinted itself on my psyche. I think the framing, the fact that you could pluck a little bit of magic out of the fabric of everyday life. And it could seem, look, feel very special and then if you played a little bit with color, and amplified it with a wide angle, then you've got these images that imprinted themselves on people's minds. I mean I was never interested in photography per se. I was much more interested in the lives of the people I was studying like Baudelaire, Rimbaud, the English romantics like Shelley and company or maybe the beat poets. These were the people that I was studying and these were the people that I was fascinated by. Somehow I think when I look back, especially at those early pictures like. I think you can see that I viewed David, Lee, Lou, Iggy, Freddy, through that particular prism. And it somehow looks stuck on to those images themselves. Photography is kinda fascinating really when you think it's technically a piece of what you should get is a piece of reality but of course what you're really getting is an amplification, you get this little slice amplified, jigged in some ways. I'm not saying all photography is so memorable. In fact most of it, like most music is pretty disposable. But some stuff stays in the mind. And nowadays some people even call it art, and some have even called my work art (laughs)...and it's been an interesting journey for me, that's for sure.

antiMUSIC: What are your weapons of choice these days? Are you a convert to digital? Do you still use film?

Mick Rock: I do both. I first shoot film. But most of my fun photography tends to be digital rather than 35 mm. But I do set up stuff. I also shoot medium format film. There's an up side and a down side to digital. The upside is obvious .You can shoot any amount of it. You can shoot without breaks as long as you've got a big enough memory stick. Also you can manipulate it easily. Or email it or whatever. So I like to do both. To me…there's no battle there. It's like film and video tape, or film and high res DV. To me it's just another tool. There's a different feel to digital that may not be obvious to the average observer, but to me I can see a different feel. I can get certain kind of intimacy with digital that I really like. Me, I'm just after picture, images. I'll get them anyway I can. The last thing I am is a purist. If things have to be cropped, or messed about, whatever it takes, it doesn't matter to me. All that matter is the end result, the image. It doesn't matter how I get there.

antiMUSIC: It has been said that you were friends with a lot of your subjects in the '70s. Do you think that was part of your success, that you gained insights into their internal makeup which translated into better photos or are you just naturally intuitive in that regard? 

Mick Rock: I don't know if I'm the best person to judge that, but I can tell you about the one thing I did do early on. I did start out doing what you're doing now. I used to write and interview. There's a book out there called of mine called GLAM it used to be called Blood and Glitter. There are loads of quotes in it, not just of me but from characters of that period. From Syd Barrett to Richard O'Brien who wrote the Rocky Horror Picture Show, to Bowie, Lou. Lindsey Kemp, the mine/choreographer and these are all quotes that I gleaned from interviews. And if you look on the back I do make the point that these are all quotes from interviews with the subjects I did myself. So I think that maybe that DID help to some degree. It's hard for me to tell. When you look from the inside. And certainly one thing that did happen was I got a lot of collections of pictures of certain people. And I've been able to do all these books over the years, whether it was Blondie, or Bowie or Queen, or Syd Barrett, or Rocky Horror, Iggy Pop, or the Lou Reed one I'm working on now. I think, obviously, I was part of the life they were living. I lived their life in a sense that I kept their hours. I was a fellow bohemian spirit. I was not an outsider looking in. I was not owned by a record label. I was not owned by a magazine or newspaper. Someone once called me a free radical, so my empathy, my sympathies, my interest always lay with my subject, not with the labels, or the magazine editors. For me what I wanted to do, was turn on my subjects.

antiMUSIC: Is there anybody that you wished you had been able to photograph but could never link up with? 

Mick Rock: I don't think I tried very hard, but of course it would haven lovely to photograph someone like John Lennon. Bob Dylan, well, would have been nice to have shot him. But of course the prime Bob Dylan, but I was too young and not even taking photographs then. That's a bit before my time. That would have been fun. But in general I seemed to have photographed a lot of people I wanted to. And of course I'm photographing a lot nowadays when I get to England on this trip; I'm going to finally shoot the Foo Fighters, and Jack White's new band the Raconteurs, and Richard Ashcroft and Primal Scream. I think The Strokes as well, because we've tried this before but sometimes it's just when the time is right. You can't just force them. They just…you may want to do a shoot, but when the time is right they just work out. And that's always been my belief with these things. Not that I madly pursue things, it's just that when the stars are properly aligned (laughs), BING! They'll happen and you don't have to think about it.

antiMUSIC: You put out several books. Any more books planned?

Mick Rock: I'm in the middle of the Lou Reed one in fact. First of all there will a limited edition book, like the Bowie book, that's out there. There's a commercial one Moonage Daydream that was originally a limited edition, signed book, as indeed was the Queen book and the Syd Barrett book, which Syd actually signed 320 copies. There's also a more broad-based Mick Rock book which will include...I've got a title for it. I'm not going to spout it out because I really like the title but you can't copyright a title, so I'm keep the title under wraps, but the working title is Exposure. 

antiMUSIC: Well, it's been an honor speaking with you, Mick. Thanks for this and all the best.

Mick Rock: It's been a pleasure. Thank you so much.

antiMUSIC and Morley Seaver thank Mick Rock for taking the time to do this interview.


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