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Exhibition and book of Mick Rock's photography looks back on David Bowie

Exhibition and book of Mick Rock's photography looks back on David Bowie
David Bowie in a photograph taken by Mick Rock in Aberdeen, Scotland, on May 16, 1973. (Mick Rock / Taschen)

When photographer Mick Rock met David Bowie in 1971, the world was not paying attention. Rock was a recent student of literature at Cambridge who came upon the glittery young rock 'n' roller at the beginning of an inspired new musical phase. Rock had just picked up a camera for the first time and soon couldn't get enough of his favorite new subject: an androgynous Bowie persona called Ziggy Stardust.

The '60s were over and a new decade of glamour and decadence had begun in the form of Bowie's alien "starman," a cultural moment captured in Rock's massive new book of photography, "The Rise of David Bowie, 1972-1973" (Taschen). "People ask me: How could I have known?" Rock remembers of finding his now-famous subject. "Obviously the LSD had done something to my intuition."

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An exhibition of pictures from the book is now in its final week at the Taschen Gallery in Los Angeles, and news that David Bowie is preparing to release a new album, "Blackstar," early next year has inspired the usual anticipation and reflection among fans. Which Bowie will it be?

The career of Bowie has always been measured in terms of phases and changes through multiple personas. None made a more lasting impression than Ziggy Stardust, the leading figure in the '70s glam-rock movement. Rock's new large-scale book unveils that era in vivid detail, reproducing his pictures for the first time directly from the original slides and negatives.

Bowie approved the book, but has made no public comment. "David doesn't comment much. You know David by his actions," Rock said, adding with a laugh, "Maybe he just wants to be the Greta Garbo of rock 'n' roll."

As a photographer with Bowie during those years, Rock shot portraits, live pictures, candid images on the road and more. One striking black-and-white photograph is simply Bowie with guitarist Mick Ronson, both dressed in elegant, flamboyant suits, sitting over a meal in a British Rail dining car. Rock said he has pictures of Bowie in over 72 outfits, noting that the singer would change two or three times a show.

"There was this alien thing about them too that I was drawn to," he said. "I really just followed my instincts or followed what I liked. I did believe that they were significant."

Over the decades, Rock also shot Queen, Alicia Keys, Daft Punk, Tori Amos, Blondie, Madonna, the Black Keys, Sex Pistols, Joan Jett “and people you’ve never heard of and never will.” But it was the pictures he made of Bowie and Lou Reed in the '70s that have loomed largest in his career.

David [Bowie] doesn't comment much...Maybe he just wants to be the Greta Garbo of rock 'n' roll.


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At the Taschen Gallery, he flipped through the book and pointed to a photo of Bowie, Iggy Pop and Reed together, arm-in-arm. The legacy of each is secure in 2015, but many of their now-classic albums were not embraced in their time, and some even went out of print. One of those was 1973's "Raw Power" by Iggy and the Stooges, produced by Bowie, with a cover image by Rock. Its influence on the coming punk revolution was essential.

"Now it's one of the great albums of all time, but I've got even Iggy on tape saying 'That was a dead loser, that one,'" Rock said. "Three months after its release, it was in the 50-cent bin."

Rock also shot on the set of "Rocky Horror Picture Show," and directed some short films of Bowie performing as Ziggy that predate the MTV era. "Some people talked to me about making films, and I said, 'I can't do it. I'm not ... getting up that early.' I am ready at noon. I like to do my yoga workout, chants, get my massage in, and then I can deal with anything for as long as you want. But I'm not working at dawn."

As the Ziggy period ended in Bowie's music, Rock's career veered in other directions, and he moved to New York. "He actually invited me to Berlin to shoot him and Iggy at one point, but I was so enamored with New York," Rock said. "Lou also knew where to get the drugs."

Other than a photo session in 2002, Rock hasn't worked with Bowie since, but the connections between them remain. When Rock was hospitalized with heart trouble in 1996, the rocker sent flowers and money along with signed Rock photographs to help pay for his medical care.

The pictures have an ongoing life that surprises even Rock, reaching back to an earlier cultural era that continues to fascinate music fans today. Ziggy Stardust was a rocker from another world, but the technology was strictly 1972-73.

"You weren't ... on the bloody computer. It was a long way before that," Rock said. "You didn't even have cellphones. There weren't fax machines. To say it was a primitive world is not completely untrue. David did a lot of things with smoke and mirrors."

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"Mick Rock: Shooting for Stardust. The Rise of David Bowie and Company." Taschen Gallery, 8070 Beverly Blvd., Through Oct. 30. (323) 852 9098

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