Some 65 photographs make up a new exhibit, “Bowie by Mick Rock,” at MoPOP in Seattle. “Back then it was just rock ’n’ roll photography,” said Rock, looking around an exhibit room. “Over the years it became art. And it wasn’t supposed to be like that.”
On that awful morning, Mick Rock woke up on the couch, turned on his television and saw the video for David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” He thought he was seeing a news story about Bowie’s new record, “Blackstar.”
“And then the banner came up,” Rock recalled of that January day last year, when Bowie died of cancer at age 69.
“And then the phone started ringing.”
As Bowie’s longtime photographer, Rock has a unique perspective on the man who would become a rock ’n’ roll icon. For several years, he was backstage and in front of the stage during Bowie’s tours. At parties, at home. In the crowds and in the quiet.
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Some 65 of those photographs make up a new exhibit, “Bowie by Mick Rock,” which opened this weekend at MoPOP in Seattle.
On the eve of the exhibit’s opening, Rock stretched out on an orange couch in the center of one of the MoPOP galleries, surrounded by his photographs of his fine-boned, costumed friend. He cracked jokes and fluffed his wild hair, and made faces behind darkened glasses.
“Back then it was just rock ’n’ roll photography,” he said, looking around the room. “Over the years it became art. And it wasn’t supposed to be like that.
“We were sticking our thumb at the authorities.”
He and Bowie met in March 1972, when Rock — a fan of Bowie’s “Hunky Dory” album, released the previous year — went to see the artist perform. Bowie invited him to his home the next day and the two bonded over writers like Arthur Rimbaud and American musicians like Iggy Pop and Lou Reed.
“I saw them all through the filter of a lot of the people I was studying at Cambridge,” he said. “English romantics like Byron, Shelley and Keats. The American Beats [poets], who created when in states of high chemical inebriation.
“And I started to think of art in terms of chemicals,” he said. “Sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.”
The two friends started hanging out, “David turning me onto his gay dance place, or going to dinner with his wife, Angie.
“We’d have a meal and then it picked up steam.”
As Bowie’s looks evolved, he and Rock “were always swapping ideas.”
“But I didn’t tell David what to wear,” he said. “Nobody told him what to wear. He made his own costumes.
“In the end, David Bowie did what he wanted to do.”
When “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” was released a few months after they met, Rock was there for the explosion that followed.
Between 1972 and 1976, Rock shot some 5,000 photographs of Bowie.
“The culture was young,” Rock said. “There weren’t many people over 30. So it was much less complicated.”
Photographing his friend “was better than getting a real job,” he said.
But it also yielded intimate shots of Bowie making himself up backstage, partying with friends. Even when Bowie posed for Rock, there was a trust in his eyes.
Rock never set foot in a photo studio until the fall of 1973, when he started doing portraits and album covers for acts such as Iggy Pop and Queen, and “I got a taste of the control I had in the studio,” he said.
Since Bowie’s death, Rock has renewed his commitment to photography. He helped make a documentary of his life and career called “Shot! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock.”
Rock lives on Staten Island in New York and is a fashion photographer. After the opening at MoPOP, he is headed to Rome and London to shoot a campaign for a designer he wouldn’t name.
Looking around the room once more, Rock couldn’t say when he knows he has gotten a good photograph.
“You do and you don’t and you feel it,” he said. “I think they’re all masterpieces.”
We both looked around the room for a moment, taking in Bowie’s porcelain skin, shock of orange hair and glam. So much glam.
“He was a sweetie,” Rock said, remembering how, after a 1996 heart attack that required quadruple-bypass surgery, Bowie sent flowers, money and signed copies of “The Rise of David Bowie, 1972-1973,” one of the books they did together.
Rock sold them before Bowie’s death. He wishes he hadn’t.
Not long ago, a young fan approached at an exhibit of Rock’s work.
“I wish I was around then,” he told him.
“You can have all this,” Rock told him, “if I could be 21 again.”