Mexico City–based photographer Fernando Aceves has spent the past 25 years shooting an impressive assortment of rock icons, both onstage and off-: Paul McCartney, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, KISS, Ozzy Osbourne, Billy Joel, The Scorpions. His photographs of The Rolling Stones were part of an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art of Mexico City in 2000 and were included in two photography books celebrating the band’s 40th and 50th anniversaries. Aceves also has published his own photography books, including Ilusiones y Destellos: Retratos del Rock Mexicano (Illusions and Sparks From Mexican Rock) and 50 Jazzistas Mexicanos (50 Mexican Jazz Musicians).
“Since I was a child I was very attracted to cinematography,” Aceves says over the phone with the help of a translator. “I thought I’d work in the film industry, but then I realized that photography was my main passion and discovered music was also another side of the visual arts. I would spend hours just studying photographs of album covers.”
In 1997, the photographer got the call of a lifetime. David Bowie’s concert promoters contacted Aceves hoping to publicize the singer’s show in Mexico City on Oct. 23 of that year. Bowie was on tour for his second industrial-inspired album, Earthling, which included the song “I’m Afraid of Americans.” (The single was Bowie’s last on the Billboard Hot 100 before “Lazarus” and “Blackstar,” off of what is now his final record, 2016’s Blackstar.) Aceves accompanied Bowie, band members in tow, for three days as he made stops at some of the city’s artistic and archaeological sites. Bowie also had intended to use the photographs as a reference for an article he was writing for British magazine Modern Painters on Mexico’s “big three” muralists: Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Jose Clemente Orozco. From Jan. 27 through June 15, Aceves' photos will be on display at the Forest Lawn Museum in Glendale in the exhibit “David Bowie: Among the Mexican Masters.”
“He was well informed before he went to these places,” Aceves says. “He would stand in front of a mural and study every single aspect of it. And he was amazed by the architecture of the palaces.”
Among the exhibit’s approximately 35 photographs are images of Bowie looking out at the pyramids in Teotihuacán and touring the Frida Kahlo Museum, aka “the Blue House,” where he’s holding a mask that highlight his famous dual-colored eyes. In another set of pictures, he’s staring at Rivera's mural The History of Mexico, Orozco's Catharsis and Siqueiros’ Portrait of the Bourgeoisie. And in front of another mural, Juan O’Gorman’s Union March, Bowie is mimicking the backdrop of marching union workers while linking arms with drummer Zack Alford and longtime keyboardist Mike Garson, who’s appearing in a Bowie tribute concert with headliner Sting and others at the Wiltern this month.
“He was very easy to be with, not demanding,” Aceves recalls. “He was just studying and admiring. These photographs showcase a very human David Bowie. They gave me the opportunity to see the man. He never acted like a rock star. He was simple, kind.”
After the tour, Aceves received a thank-you letter from Bowie, which he saved, along with his concert pass – Erasure was the opener. Aceves would chat with Bowie again at a 2001 benefit concert for Tibet House in Carnegie Hall in New York that included Patti Smith, Emmylou Harris, Moby and Philip Glass.
For reasons unknown the magazine story never ran. And Aceves has displayed and published only a few of the photographs over the years, including in a group exhibit in a London gallery in 2016 that included the work of Mick Rock, the granddaddy of glam-rock photography behind some of the most recognizable images of Bowie as Ziggy Stardust.
So what did the rock icon think of the pictures? According to Aceves, Bowie’s favorite was a profile shot of him gazing at Rivera’s epic fresco Man at the Crossroads, originally commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller in 1934 but destroyed due to its political content. Rivera repainted it in Mexico City's Palace of Fine Arts and renamed it Man, Controller of the Universe. “He looks like he’s part of the mural,” Aceves says.
“David Bowie: Among the Mexican Masters,” Forest Lawn Museum, 1712 S. Glendale Ave., Glendale; Jan. 27-June 15; free. eventbrite.com/e/david-bowie-among-the-mexican-masters-tickets-30535365099.