The music photographer Mick Rock – official photographer to David Bowie and “the man who shot the 70s” – has died aged 72.
The news was confirmed by his representative in a statement that described Rock as a “photographic poet” and “a true force of nature who spent his days doing exactly what he loved, always in his own delightfully outrageous way”.
Rock created the abiding images of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust era, shot the back sleeve for his 1973 album Pin Ups and directed videos for Space Oddity, Life on Mars, Jean Genie and John, I’m Only Dancing.
The pianist Mike Garson, a longtime collaborator with Bowie, called Rock “one of a kind, with such an eye for aesthetics and seizing the right moments … Mick gave so much to this planet and he adored David”.
Rock also created iconic album artwork for artists including Lou Reed (Transformer, Coney Island Baby), the Stooges (Raw Power), the Ramones (End of the Century), Joan Jett (I Love Rock’n’Roll) and Queen’s Queen II, an image that the group repurposed for the video of Bohemian Rhapsody as well as their album Sheer Heart Attack.
He continued to shoot throughout his life, later producing album artwork for Atlas Sound (Parallax), Black Lips (Underneath the Rainbow) and Miley Cyrus (Plastic Hearts).
Rock also worked in film, shooting production stills for cult musicals The Rocky Horror Picture Show and the John Cameron Mitchell films Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus.
Michael David Rock was born in 1948 in Hammersmith. He studied medieval and modern languages at Cambridge and made headlines when he was arrested for marijuana possession at university. He first picked up a camera during an acid trip, although later discovered there was no film in it.
It was at Cambridge that Rock started shooting the local music scene, befriending the local musician Syd Barrett – for whose debut solo album, The Madcap Laughs, he shot the artwork – and Mick Jagger’s younger brother, Chris.
Rock met Bowie backstage at Birmingham Town Hall in the middle of the Ziggy Stardust tour, when the musician was still a cult act. He credited a shot of Bowie simulating oral sex on Mick Ronson’s guitar as launching both of their careers.
“The guitar fellatio shot with Mick Ronson was an image that really got around, especially when it got to America,” Rock said. “And David would talk about being bisexual and would put on lipstick and drive people crazy. Mick wasn’t gay and the photo isn’t meant to suggest they had a thing, David was just trying to bite Mick’s guitar. For the first time people started to ask, ‘Who took this picture?’”
It was Bowie who introduced him to Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, leading to connections with the wider 70s rock scene including Debbie Harry and Andy Warhol – whom he once photographed alongside Truman Capote dressed in a Santa outfit.
Reed showed Rock New York’s gay underground. “I was fascinated,” said Rock. “We were upsetting the straight society, and just having fun. When I got to New York it was like Sodom and Gomorrah gone berserk! London was naughty, but nothing like New York.”
Rock’s process was “more of an intuitive thing rather than a heavily pre-designed thing”, he told the BBC. “I am in the business of evoking the aura of the people and photographing.
“I’m not necessarily looking for a literal reality, I’m looking for something that’s got a bit of magic to it, and quite where that comes from or when that moment is you can’t prescribe.”
He representatives’ statement said: “The stars seemed to effortlessly align for Mick when he was behind the camera. Feeding off of the unique charisma of his subjects electrified and energised him … A man fascinated with image, he absorbed visual beings through his lens and immersed himself in their art, thus creating some of the most magnificent photographs rock music has ever seen.”
In the mid-90s, Rock said he almost died following two decades of substance abuse – he called himself a “compulsive experimenter” – undergoing a quadruple heart bypass that he said was paid for by Rolling Stones managers Allen Klein and Andrew Loog Oldham. He also received a kidney transplant.
“I was broke, and being broke is not fun, especially with a serious cocaine habit,” he said. “I had the IRS up my ass, I had a child, I owned nothing, I was in debt and I got a messy reputation because of my habit. The quality of my photography didn’t suffer, but I became less and less reliable in terms of meetings and delivery times. Eventually, the phone stopped ringing.”
He credited yoga, massage and meditation with helping his rehabilitation, as well as never having touched heroin or alcohol. By the 2000s, classic rock photography had taken on a huge cultural appeal, regularly producing exhibitions and books. Renewed interest in Rock’s work gave the photographer a fresh start, shooting the likes of Kate Moss, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Pharrell.
Rock published several books collecting his most famous photographs and hosted the documentary series On the Record With Mick Rock, in which he met musicians such as Kings of Leon and Patti LaBelle and toured their home towns.
Rock lived in New York City on Staten Island with his wife Pati and daughter Nathalie.
He recently said that he had been “offered millions” for his archives, to which he retained copyright. “So why not cash in and do a Bob Dylan?” he said. “Well, if it was worth that much I might be tempted, because that’s just unbelievable. I have thought about it but it’s not going to happen right now. When it does I plan to leave some to the yogis and some to my college, because that’s where I learned all my mischief.”
• This article was amended on 21 and 26 November 2021. The David Bowie song Space Oddity was previously referred to as “Space Odyssey”, and the album Pin Ups as “Pinups”; Mick Rock shot some of the back cover artwork for Pin Ups, not for its front as a previous version said.