Masayoshi Sukita remembers the first time he met David Bowie. It was 1972; the rock star had adopted his Ziggy Stardust persona and was on the cusp of global fame. Despite his limited English, the Japanese photographer contacted Bowie’s management and persuaded them to set up a shoot. Sukita says he wasn’t intimidated: “I felt very relaxed. I was nine years older than him, and I already had significant experience as a portrait and fashion photographer.
“It was later, after that first shoot, that my interest for David Bowie grew… I was fascinated by the way Bowie expressed himself. He was no ordinary performer. He created a new world for himself that centred around a character from outer space and he was the alien star.”
The creative partnership between the two men would last 40 years until Bowie’s death in 2016. Sukita cemented Bowie’s “alien” look in the striking images of the musician dressed in high-fashion Japanese Hakama garb – face deathly pale, a gold circle painted on his forehead. In 1977, he would photograph Bowie again in stark black and white, arms posed rigidly framing his face, in an image that would later become the cover for his album Heroes.
Photographer Guido Harari says: “Sukita has captured Bowie modulating and mutating, reconstructing and deconstructing. In his photos, you can even spot the real David Jones, under the heavy make-up, red hair, Kansai [Yamamoto]’s outrageous stage clothes and all.”
It’s clear that the relationship was among the most meaningful of Sukita’s career but it was not his only collaboration that produced some of the 20th century’s most striking pop music imagery. Despite this, he remains relatively unknown outside of his home country, something that the first retrospective book of his work to be published outside Japan hopes to change.
Sukita: Eternity, published by ACC Art Books, follows the photographer from his wartime childhood in the coalmining town of Nogata. His father died two days after Japan’s surrender in 1945 and his mother struggled to make ends meet, although she did buy him his first camera. Like many of his generation – he was born in 1938 – Sukita was captivated by the influx of American culture that swept through post-war Japan. Eternity includes moving photographs of television screens showing the faces of Marlon Brando and other American film stars, superimposed with Japanese characters, showing an early fascination with pop glamour and portraiture.
After studying at the Japan Institute of Photography and Film, he moved to Tokyo to work in fashion and advertising. He went freelance in 1970 and moved to New York, hanging out at Warhol’s factory and photographing Jimi Hendrix. He didn’t stay long. He says: “In the early Seventies, it seemed that the culture of London was perhaps more interesting than that of New York, so I felt drawn to find out what was going on there. I also felt that there was an interesting cultural change in music underway which particularly attracted me.”
In June 1972, he began an intensive six months of shooting Marc Bolan and T Rex, following the band on tour. That was the year met Bowie, who at the time was as fascinated with Japanese culture as Sukita was fascinated by England, drawing much from kabuki theatre to create his Ziggy Stardust persona. Sukita was just one of his Japanese collaborators at the time – he also worked with designer Kansai Yamamoto and stylist Yacco Takahashi.
Sukita’s work with Bowie opened new doors, including an introduction to Iggy Pop. “I think they found something in each other that they didn’t have themselves,” Sukita reflects. “David found wildness in Iggy; Iggy found intelligence in David. It always seemed to me that this was the reason they worked very well with each other.” One of Sukita’s images of Pop was used for the cover of his 1981 album Party but, according Yacco Takahashi, he forgot to credit Sukita. “Sukita’s response was just: ‘Never mind, Iggy is a great guy!’”, says Takahashi. Pop, for his part, has said that, “of all the photographers I have known, I trust Sukita the most”.
He continued working prolifically throughout the 80s, photographing punk and New Wave stars including Madness, Johnny Rotten, Culture Club, David Byrne and Cyndi Lauper. A huge underground film fan, he was the stills photographer for Jarmusch’s third feature film, Mystery Train, in 1989. He continued, of course, to shoot Bowie regularly.
On returning to Japan, he worked often with seminal electronic act Yellow Magic Orchestra. “There can be few better iconic images of an era than Masayoshi Sukita’s cover for YMO’s album Solid State Survivor,” says Tokyo-based poet Chris Mosdell. “The game of mah-jong interrupted, the Coke bottle, the Chinese revolutionary hat, the female mannequin in the see-through red blouse and YMO in their red neo-Mao suits. The work is both emotionally immediate and permanently historic.”
Now in his 80s, Sukita continues to work, mainly in the form of street photography in his home prefecture of Kyushu. “It is a tough job,” he says of ageing in the industry. “In my forties, it was fine, but when you’re in your seventies, there’s no one your age in the entire venue. The youngsters look at me with mystified expressions on their faces. I looked at older men the same way when I was young. Now I’m on the receiving end.”
Still, he doesn’t want to stop. “The desire to express something through photographs has been with me since I was in photography school and will remain with me until I die. Photographs are huge, universal; photographs are love.”
Sukita: Eternity is published on 22 June by ACC Art Books. A deluxe edition is also available.