Shooting stars

In the pre-paparazzi era, music photographers befriended celebrities rather than harassing them.

The Doors 521 (photo credit: Henry Diltz)
The Doors 521
(photo credit: Henry Diltz)
In the Oscar-nominated, Grammy Award-winning comedy-drama Almost Famous, the teenage protagonist, an aspiring rock journalist, is advised by a professional colleague, one Lester Bang, not to befriend the musicians he hangs out with and writes about. This is a tip that Mick Rock happily ignored when he was a young photographer capturing images of rock musicians who were later to become some of the most iconic figures of the 1970s and thereafter.
Rock is one of four photographers whose works will be on show at the Minotaure Gallery in Tel Aviv from September 20 to 30 and on October 10.
The rock pantheon members are there in abundance. Besides Rock’s shots, the exhibition encompasses captivating prints of stars from both sides of the pond, including John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, The Doors and Jimi Hendrix, taken by camera- operating luminaries Henry Diltz, Bob Gruen and Joel Brodsky.
It is fascinating to hear someone who was an integral part of the rock scene of those bygone halcyon days talk about the difference between snapping photos of musicians three or four decades ago compared with doing the job in the contemporary media-saturated world in which, presumably, every star or wannabe is hip to the image they’d like to convey to the public.
“Back then, not that many of the pictures got released because there weren’t that many outlets for them,” observes British-born Rock, who resides in New York and has been tagged with the weighty epithet of “The Man Who Shot the Seventies.”
“Also, you got to be friends with the musicians and you didn’t think about the implications of the pictures, other than if they were album covers,” he continues.
It was less of a jungle when Rock started out. “In a sense it was a more innocent time, because there weren’t gossip columnists everywhere and there was a lot more of a sense of trust back then.”
As for Bang’s sagacious advice, Rock says there was a clear differentiation between journalists and those who portrayed rock stars in words. “I was a photographer and they were writers. I wasn’t a critic; I was a celebrator of what was going on. It was a different role.”
Even so, presumably, Rock was at liberty to take realistic photos that may not necessarily have portrayed his subjects as the glamorous figures they and their managers wanted to be put out there.
“I took lots of those kinds of pictures but I just didn’t release them,” he says. “I had no desire to release anything that I didn’t think was in some way complimentary. I wanted to be loved, I didn’t want to be hated.”
This could just as easily have come straight out of the mouth of the person in front of Rock’s camera lens. It’s almost a reversal of roles.
“I identified with these people,” he explains, “and I think that’s probably true of quite a lot of the photographers back then. You weren’t in the business of trying to embarrass the stars in any way and, again, there weren’t that many outlets in those days.”
Of course, that is a far cry from the today’s scene, in which we are constantly bombarded with images of the rich and famous on TV, in the print media and on umpteen blogs, news, gossip and other websites.
Rock first came to wider notice for the photos he took of David Bowie when the latter’s career was just starting to take off in global proportions. It was early 1972, when Bowie began to unleash his short-lived but mesmerizing multicolored stage persona, Ziggy Stardust, on an unsuspecting public.
Rock had a head start on the rest of the media.
“I took maybe 6,000 or 7,000 pictures of David but didn’t have anywhere to run them, so they languished in some drawer for many years,” he recalls.
Some of the images that did make it to the light of day have remained among the most iconic and memorable shots of the era, including, notoriously, a picture of Bowie seemingly showering lascivious oral attention on Mick Ronson’s guitar.
One Bowie image that will be on display in Tel Aviv next week shows the elfin-like rocker in anything but his mischievous, rabble-rousing mode. It is a picture of Bowie and Ronson on a train, tucking into sausages and beans. Mind you, their highly unconventional attire does give away something of the nature of their daytime job, but they basically look like a couple of pals looking forward to a hearty breakfast.
“You took the pictures because you were hanging out, but you didn’t really attach too much importance to them,” says Rock. “You tried to show the glammy side of the business rather than they were just like the rest of us.”
He says that time has been kind to the stars he spent time with and photographed, and what they represented, all those years ago. While most selfrespecting Brits or Americans over the age of 30 wouldn’t have been seen dead at concerts by the likes of Bowie, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop or Queen, certain sectors of the counter-culture of the ’60s and ’70s have now become highly respectable.
The Victoria and Albert Museum in London recently announced that it is to mount an exhibition of Bowie paraphernalia in March 2013, with around 300 items. “The thought of that back in those days would have been ridiculous,” says the photographer.
In addition to straight photography, Rock produced the artwork for some records that have become collectors’ pieces. One is Lou Reed’s Transformer album and another is British rock group Queen’s 1974 sophomore release Queen II, with its striking light-and-dark contrast concept.
“Queen were not known when I did that cover,” he notes, “that was before [Queen megahit] ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’” But Rock wasn’t exactly going to get rich in that line of work. “You got a couple of extra bob for album covers, compared with regular photography. I think about £300 for the Queen cover,” he says.
Rock also captured some early shots of Syd Barrett. “Syd was a friend of mine,” he says. “It was in the winter of 1966, when I was in my first year in Cambridge [University], and somebody took me to see him play with his band called Pink Floyd at the Cambridge Arts College Christmas party. It was his band.”
Rock got to know – and like – Barrett.
“He was an artist, a painter, and he was very creative. He didn’t want to go out and play the same songs every night. He was a lot of fun, he laughed a lot, although things got a bit strange at some point.”
Barrett left Pink Floyd in April 1968 amid rumors of heavy drug use and increasingly erratic and unreliable behavior. When he put out his first solo album, The Madcap Laughs, in 1970, Rock did the artwork for the cover.
It has been quite a trip for Rock, and for his subjects, over the past four decades, and the fruits of Rock’s camera work are now exhibited all over the world and have found their way into numerous attractive weighty tomes. We will only get a little taste of that at the Minotaure Gallery next week. Hopefully there will be more to come in the nottoo- distant future.
Unlike Rock, Diltz will be here for the exhibition and he will present a couple of talks about some of his work at the Tel Aviv gallery on September 21 at noon and at Tmol Shilshom in Jerusalem on September 23 at 7 p.m. Those who wish to attend either session should register in advance at 522-8424 (Tel Aviv) or 623-2758 (Jerusalem).