Story and photos by Gillian G. Gaar
From March 1972 to November 1973, British photographer Mick Rock shot over 5000 pictures of David Bowie as he transformed himself into glam rock superstar Ziggy Stardust. This key period in Bowie’s career is documented in “Bowie by Mick Rock,” a new exhibit that recently opened at Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture.
“For iconic musicians, often they have a photographer who really helps capture and shape their image,” says MoPOP curator Jasen Emmons, who curated the show. “And I think with Bowie, Mick really created this idea that people have in their minds about what David Bowie looks like. And it’s still so compelling.”
The exhibit documents Rock’s relationship with Bowie as well, featuring the very first shot Rock ever took of him; a pensive Bowie holding his guitar, taken backstage at Birmingham Town Hall, Birmingham, England, on March 18, 1972.
The show that night attracted 400 people. But Bowie’s star was beginning to rise. Three months later, at a show on June 17 at Oxford Town Hall, Rock snapped what he calls the “guitar fellatio” shot, of Bowie on crouching down in front of guitarist Mick Ronson, his hands on the guitarist’s hips, and his mouth on the guitar strings. “Did you get it?” Bowie eagerly asked Rock as he left the stage. Rock had, and the soon-to-be iconic photo ran in the June 20 edition of the U.K. music weekly “Melody Maker,” provoking an immediate controversy.
Rock took another iconic photo that same year, at Bowie’s London home, Haddon Hall; Bowie, his back to the camera, gazing into a mirror, the shot capturing the reflection of his face. Bowie was extremely pleased with Rock’s work, telling his manager, “Mick sees me the way I see myself.” “That was the session that sealed our relationship,” says Rock, “and then he’d invite me all over the place.”
Rock shot Bowie in a variety of settings, at work and at play. Rock’s photos, especially the black & white shots, have a sharp, clean look that feels completely contemporary, as in the picture of Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed hanging out together at a club. “Those three really upset people,” Rock chuckles. “‘The terrible Trio’ I used to call that photograph; and later ‘The Unholy Trinity.’
“One thing that strikes me looking at these pictures is they could’ve been taken yesterday,” Rock continues. “And these were taken 45 years ago.”
The exhibit features some of Rock’s other work from that heady decade; pictures of Syd Barrett, the cast of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” and the album cover shot of Lou Reed’s “Transformer,” as well as screening the Bowie videos Rock directed.
“David was always changing,” says Rock. “And the amazing thing about this era is that I’ve got pictures of him in 73 different outfits! Now, I’ve never done a book where you get to see all of them. But maybe I should do a book that has all 73 different outfits in it.”
“Bowie by Mick Rock” runs through January 15, 2017 at the Museum of Pop Culture, 325 5th Ave. N., Seattle; MoPOP.org.