The recipe for a quality rock 'n roll photo is typically simple and standard: put a badass rock star in front of the lens and a photographer blessed with an eye for composition behind it. Let a few hours pass, a few photos develop and the whole process culminates with an image fully prepped to grace the cover of Rolling Stone.
Although this is the formula for the majority of the photos of rock stars we see daily, in the case of Mick Rock, the roles of "star" and "photographer" are not so clearly defined. Notoriously donned "the man who shot the 70s," Mick Rock's iconic shots of David Bowie, Queen, Iggy Pop and Joan Jett have boosted Mick Rock's name to household status, spreading the focus of the photo from the artists posing to the artist shooting.
Although this unique phenomenon can't be said about too many other photographers, it can be justified by Mick's continued and unparalleled talent for shooting musicians -- a talent which can now be witnessed firsthand at the W downtown. This installation (open to the public until December 29) features a combination of never-before-seen shots of the artists who made him famous and shots of fresh talent from the past few years, including Janelle Monáe, Cee Lo, Ellie Goulding and Gaga, which Mick shot in association with the W Hotel's Symmetry Live concert series.
The installation is inspiring and truly meaningful for anyone who can appreciate rock culture as well as Rock's famous ability to capture an artist's musical and personal qualities in photo form. The exhibit is laid-back and rule-bending, the way a good rock 'n roll exhibit should be, and features some photos at a size that you'd never find in a museum. For those visiting New York for the holidays, or those NYC residents seeking solid stay-cation activities for the next week, this is one exhibit worth checking out. And for out-of-towners, the photos will be migrating to the W Washington DC for the month of February and the W Seattle for the month of March. Dates will be announced via the W's Facebook page for installations in Boston, Atlanta, Chicago, Miami and Scottsdale.
TH: Can you tell us a bit about this exhibit -- the photographs, how they are displayed?
MR: A number of them are displayed very large, which is nice, because that's something that I can't always do in galleries. It's the first time I've done something in a hotel too -- but obviously it's a hotel that I've been a fan of for many years and a hotel that I've been working with for the last few years.
TH: How did you get involved with the W and Symmetry Live?
MR: I had stayed in a W and I knew some people who worked there. I was told that they were starting this music series and thought perhaps I might be interested in working with them. I said certainly, especially because I knew they were going to be working with younger artists. I actually prefer to work with younger artists - they're a lot more fun and I can play with the imagery much easier. So I said yes. It's been a lot of fun and they always treat me well. So it just sort of barreled along. This past year, for instance, I've shot great new talent like Janelle Monáe, Cee Lo and Theophilus London. I mean, these are great acts. They have a terrific director of music at the W, Michaelangelo L'Acqua, who has become a friend of mine. He's got his nose in the wind, that's for sure, and he's been setting up these events for me to shoot.
TH: Do you have a favorite photo in this exhibit? What artists are featured?
MR: It really varies a lot. I love some of the new stuff. I love the Janelle Monáe, in particular. But of course it's hard for me to ignore my Bowie pictures, or the Debbie Harry, or the Iggy backbend shot - that's an image that's haunted me for many years. Of course the Queen shot -- that doesn't go anywhere. And of course Joan Jett, the I Love Rock and Roll album cover. She's one of my all time favorite performers. I've got some Kate Moss in it too from a session we did a few years ago. And Jimmy Fallon, because he's the best of the music comedians. I've always thought that was his forte, in fact.
The biggest shot in the show is a picture of Bono and Lady Gaga that was taken a couple of years ago at a private party. Bono was very keen to get pictures of him and Gaga together. In fact, she's just asked for three copies of one of the shots, which I'm going to get over to her before Christmas. One shot all of us co-signed and donated to the Bill Clinton foundation.
There's a shot of Dave Grohl with his huge tongue hanging out that's never been in an exhibit before. And there's a Freddie Mercury in black and white that's never been seen before. So it's a mixture of some classic stuff and some unseen material and of course there's these new acts. And there's Ozzy Osbourne looking like an angel - if you can believe that - taken in the '70s. I know that's Kelly's favorite shot of him. She said he's never looked so cute.
TH: How do you select the subjects of your photos?
MR: They come in all different ways. In the early years, I would seek out the acts, but mostly nowadays they come to me. If it's the right act or the right circumstance, of course, I'm very happy to shoot. I photograph models as well at times, but I enjoy photographing musicians because they bring a lot of energy to the session. Plus it's more than just taking a cool picture; it's about capturing something of the aura of the people as artists.
TH: What makes for a great photo shoot?
MR: I feel like a cook. I wait until all of the ingredients are there, then I start to stir and apply the heat, and gradually the magic boils to the surface. I don't like to psychologically get too locked in before I go to a session. I like to allow the session to breathe so that the energy can come through. It's hard to answer because there is a certain amount of intuition that goes into it. I never do a session without doing a yoga workout, if you want to know the truth. That's been true for a very long time. So I feel that I go in opened up to the circumstance. I'm looking for a powerful moment. I'm looking for a moment that people remember and always come back to. For me, in many ways, it's very therapeutic. At the end of it I feel somehow emptied out. It calms my soul.
TH: Has this always been your way of shooting musicians?
MR: I'm more disciplined now I think. I was studying language and literature at Cambridge University and one day I just picked up a camera. That's really how it all began. A very young local band around Cambridge gave me 5 pounds to take a few pictures of them and I thought, ah! You can actually get paid for doing this! And somehow it gathered steam. It was not planned-out, it was not particularly my ambition. In the introduction to my latest book, Exposed, it starts out, "photography happened to me." It took over. I got sidetracked early on and the sidetracking became the focus of my life. And I'm grateful.
TH: You are always ahead of the curve with your photographs, selecting not just artists, but musicians and personalities who turn into really iconic figures. Is there anyone on your radar right now who you'd like to photograph?
MR: I just shot Bradford Cox from Deerhunter and I think Karen O., I mean, she's an artist. I like people who are more than just performers, but are artists in the bigger sense, like Janelle Monáe. You know Theophilus London, I think he's an amazing talent, something very special. I love the fact that there's so much energy around at the moment. There are so many new acts out there and sometimes people get nostalgic for the past, but the present is as valued as the past, in fact more so because it's living, vibrant, here and now. My daughter is 21 and she has a big thing for the DJs. She tells me they're the modern rock stars. I mean, do you know who Swedish House Mafia are? She keeps telling me that I need to photograph them. She got most excited when I recently shot Deadmau5. I haven't shot any of these DJs outside of Deadmau5, but she's lobbying for me to shoot more. And TV on The Radio are a great act. Barney Clay, the director of my documentary, just made a music video for them. They're artists in the bigger sense of the word, not just performers. I think that would be an act I'd like to work with. Their primary mode of expression is the music, but it's not just about the music, it's about this bigger vision that they have. With all due respect, I was never a fan of bands like Journey or REO Speedwagon. Those bands to me wore more generic, that was never anything that interested me at all. I like an act that's pushing the boundaries a bit, that's coming out with something a little different.