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Exhibition Review: Rock 'n' Roll Icons: The Photography of Mick Rock

It's not often my jaw drops to the floor as I enter an photography exhibition. But that was my reaction on entering 'Rock ' n' Roll Icons: The Photography of Mick Rock, at Urbis, Manchester's museum of Urban Culture.

Mick Rock was called the photographer laureate of the glam era, but he has worked continuously up to the present day. Many of his photos are already world famous.

Are you familiar with Iggy Pop, the wild boy of pre-punk? What's the strongest image that comes to mind? A bare-chested figure with eyeliner against a black background, clutching a microphone and leaning slightly to one side? Mick Rock took that photo.

And how about Lou Reed, founder of the Velvet Underground and seminal New York musician? Does a certain record sleeve with a dreamy eyed Reed playing a semi-acoustic guitar spring to mind? Mick Rock took that photo.

David Bowie in red spiky hair and diamond earrings leaning forward towards an entranced audience, bawling into the microphone. Yup, he took that one too.

He took the photo of Bowie I tore out of a music mag when I was 14, and also the one of Debbie Harry my friend Dave used to have pinned up on his bedroom wall.

In fact walking round the exibition, I can count at least 15 instantly recognisable photos, but I didn't realise they were by this photographer - until now.

There are some great quotes written in large letters across the walls. My favourite is from Mick Rock in 1996 and runs approximately: "It's amazing, given what these rockstars are like, that they are still alive." Unfortunately some others are not, like Freddie Mercury and Mick Ronson. Syd Barret lived in obscurity until his death on 7 July, 2005 aged 60.

Mick Rock is not just a photographer, but friend to the stars, sharing their intimate moments, such as the conversation between David Bowie and his guitarist Mick Ronson sitting sedately on a train eating what looks like meat and two veg. What are they talking about? The food? The running order of the show? We can only speculate.

Mick Rock also took the infamous Bowie Jagger Reed photos where Bowie and Reed start hugging and kissing.

Exhibitions can be disappointing. Either they're too small, or not very imaginitively presented, not well lit, or maybe the material is OK but not exceptional. The Mick Rock exhibition doesn't suffer form any of these shortcomings.

Just when you think you've come up close and personal with more legendary large format iconic rock images than you can handle in one evening, you turn a corner, and there are loads more to look at. More David Bowie, more Lou Reed, mime artist Lyndsay Kemp, drag artist Tim Curry in the Rocky Horror show, Kate Moss barely covered, another model not covered at all, and then, the most iconic of all iconic rock photos - the four members of Queen, spotlit from above. That simple set up was used in the first and possibly most famous rock video of them all, Bohemian Rhapsody.

The deliciously decadent atmosphere of glam is enhanced by French boudoir style furniture, gold frames on some of the photos and - on the personal insistence of creative director Scott Burnham - flock wallpaper.

There is a video room with footage of Mick Rock working with stars including Michael Stipes of REM and others.

In a far corner, Mick Rock appears in photos himself, with Lou Reed, David Bowie, Lyndsay Kemp and Freddie Mercury, to whom he bears a striking resemblance,

Looking at these images, you realise that Mick Rock is a mirror to the stars he portrays, he reflects what they are in his photos. He is similar to them and is part of their world. We don't see him, rather, we see through his eyes.

Like other photographers of celebrities, he is the conduit, the connection between the stars and us. For me personally, he is one step away from one person I would like to meet, interview and photograph: David Bowie.

I have one criticism of the exhibition, and that's the quality of the digital printing, used for most if not all of the photos on display. It's important to stress that there is nothing wrong with the prints on display, in fact they are the most impressive set of large format digital prints I've ever seen.

It's just that at present, digital printing doesn't quite have the sharpness and tonal subtlety of high quality colour photographic prints.

And on some of the large format murals, including the ones of Queen, the sheets don't quite match up.

But that's a small point. Digital printing allows a much bigger print size, with more impact. The exhibition couldn't have been done like this without it. And there's great variety in the way they're presented, some backlit, some on canvas, some filling an entire wall.

As Mick Rock said to me as he was looking at the photo I'd just taken of him, displayed on my Apple Powerbook G4: 'It's amazing what you can do with all this digital stuff, but film has still got something'.

Despite this comment, Mick Rock has embraced the digital medium and produced innovative and cololurful photocollages of images taken 30 years earlier.

If you're a diehard fan of the glamrock era and would like to see some of the most famous images of your favourite stars gathered together in one place, you'll love this exhibition.

If you enjoy looking at portraits of famous people and gaining a window on the intimate lives of the stars, you'll love this exhibition.

If you're interested in seeing technically and creatively brilliant photographs, and would like to gain an insight into the working methods the photographer who made them, you'll love this exhibition.

If you'd like to find inspiration and ideas try out in your own photography, also innovative ways to present photos in a show - You'll love this exhibition.

It is timed to coincide with the In The City music festival and will no doubt tempt many music industry delegates to take a walk down Corporation St to Urbis. I'm sure the most if not all of them will love this exhibition.

It's very very good indeed, so good I sent a text message home (See photo).

It's one of the best exhibitions I've ever seen and I absolutely recommend it.

'Rock ' n' Roll Icons: The Photography of Mick Rock, runs from 29 September 2005 to 8 January 2006 . More details at www.urbis.org.uk.

See the latest photos in my newly created Music Category

Written by Aidan O'Rourke
Posted/Updated 2005-09-29

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