Three days shy of his 73rd birthday, Mick Rock passed away on November 18, 2021. The rock world is a bit less now.
If icons such as David Bowie, Queen, Iggy Pop, and Debbie Harry defined the sound of 70s rock, Mick Rock defined the look. Often referred to as “the man who shot the 70s,” Mick Rock was a staple of concerts, after parties, clubs, and anywhere else rock stars would congregate – snapping away to capture the look and feel of the 70s rock scene like no one else.
Sadly not his given name, Mick Rock was born Michael Edward Chester Smith in the Hammersmith borough of London. His early years were unremarkable, although he did successfully enroll at the University of Cambridge, graduating with degrees in Medieval studies and language. However, his schooling would have nothing to do with what made him famous – his eye for true-to-life photography in chaotic situations.
During his time at Cambridge he happened to pick up a camera and start snapping away at a party where – in his words – the participants were in a state of “chemical inebriation.” He developed a love for photography in that moment.
Shortly after, lucky networking led him to become acquainted with Syd Barrett, co-founder of Pink Floyd, as well as the younger brother of the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger. This in turn led to him meeting David Bowie in 1972, and that cemented his career. His first famous photograph captured Bowie in all his androgynous glam glory, leading to a partnership which would last for years. Mick Rock would photograph Bowie across multiple tours and uncountable appearances, as well as directing several of Bowie’s early music videos, including ‘Space Oddity.’
Ultimately, Mick Rock would work with many of the biggest names in rock. He created the iconic image of Queen’s four heads in a black void for the Queen II album cover, which would later be recreated in their ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ video, as well as the cover for Sheer Heart Attack. Other notable covers created by Mick Rock included Syd Barrett’s The Madcap Laughs, Lou Reed’s Transformer, the Ramones’ End Of The Century, and Joan Jett’s I Love Rock And Roll.
While most associated with the 1970s-80s, Mick Rock continued to work until his retirement circa 2010, and photographed a vast array of music’s best and brightest. Just some of the artists captured by Mick Rock include Hall & Oates, Alicia Keys, Snoop Dogg, Kate Moss, Miley Cyrus, the Black Keys, Queens of the Stone Age, Jane’s Addiction, Tom Stoppard, Daft Punk, Motley Crüe, Lady Gaga, and Patti LaBelle. His photographs appeared in every major music publication, as well as numerous other journals and articles.
What was Mick Rock’s secret? He had an uncanny ability to capture musicians as they wanted to be seen, even while taking candid photographs at parties and backstage events. As Mick Rock himself put it, “I am in the business of freezing shadows and bottling auras.” He helped create the mythos of 1970s rock like almost no one else, and the vibe of the era will be forever tied to Mick Rock’s keen observational lens.
Mick Rock will be missed, and as more indelible figures from the 1970s pass on to that great gig in the sky, it’s time to reflect on the magic and mystery of the era.