The Iconic Rock Photography of Masayoshi Sukita, Interview

Interview with Masayoshi Sukita: The Eye Behind Bowie, Iggy Pop, and T. Rex

When we think about time travel, we often envision the DeLorean, the Tardis, or special portals. Since 1826, photography has acted as a time machine, offering us more than just special time capsules. Masayoshi Sukita’s photography transports us to a distant era with incredible and talented artists. He captured phenomena, faces, and bodies, recording moments forever. Masayoshi Sukita has captured some of the most stunning pictures of David Bowie ever. From a young age, Sukita became passionate about music and photography. In 1961, he joined the photographic department of Daiko Advertising Inc. in Osaka, and in 1965, he moved to Tokyo. In 1970, he began working as a freelance photographer. He traveled frequently to New York, drawn to the counterculture of Andy Warhol and Jimi Hendrix. Sukita and Bowie met for the first time in 1972 when Sukita arrived in London to shoot Marc Bolan and T. Rex. Since then, they have created wonderful shots over the course of their intense and fruitful forty-year friendship. No other photographer documented Bowie over as many years as Sukita. His photographs enriched Bowie’s album covers from Heroes (1977) to Tin Machine (1989) and The Next Day (2013). They worked together on numerous sessions, making their artistic collaboration one of the most amazing and long-lasting. With his photos and creativity, Sukita enchants everyone’s eyes. His works are included in the Brooklyn Museum’s “Who Shot Rock & Roll” exhibition. He has exhibited at Creation Gallery G8, The Guardian Garden, Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, Shibuya Parco Museum, Paul Smith Space Gallery, SNAP Galleries in London, Inter Media Station IMS in Fukuoka, Bigstep in Osaka, and many others. He published the photo book Yellow Magic Orchestra by Sukita, followed by Bowie by Sukita. Speed of Life, which covers the entire period of his collaboration with Bowie. His other books include: A Film by Jim Jarmusch: Mystery Train, David Bowie ‘KI’ by Masayoshi Sukita, and T. Rex 1972 by Sukita. He also released Sukita: Eternity, a book that not only portrays Bowie but also covers many eras of his career, from music to fashion and everything in between.

Featured image: ©Sukita – David Bowie in one of the Kansai Yamamoto costumes 1973.

What is the main reason that motivated you to become a photographer? Why did you choose photography as your style and medium of art communication? Have you always had a clear vision about your career since your childhood?

I have been a big movie fan since I was a child. The movies I watched might have made me interested in visual images. I prefer monochrome photos, it may be from monochrome movies I watched.

Masayoshi Sukita interview
©Sukita Masayoshi Sukita Portrait

What piece of art impressed you the most as a child? What are your favorite recollections linked to art and photography? Who have you looked up to as a person and an artist?

As I answered for the last question, movies were the biggest influences. I watched many kinds of movies – Japanese, western. James Dean and Marlon Brando were my idols at the time. 

“It’s very hard for me to accept that Sukita-san has been snapping away at me since 1972, but that really is the case. […] I suspect that it’s because whenever he’s asked me to do a session, I conjure up in my mind’s eye the sweet, creative, and big-hearted man who has always made these potentially tedious affairs so relaxed and painless. May he click into eternity.” David Bowie, from Sukita’s art book “Eternity

Masayoshi Sukita David Bowie 1977 Heroes
©Sukita 1977/1997 Rischi Folio. Inc. Courtesy of David Bowie Archive ™ 

Do you remember your first camera and the subjects in your first film roll?

When I was a high school student, I asked my mother to buy me a cheap camera. My father died in WW2 and our family had a hard time (financially too), but my mother bought me the camera even in the difficulties. I took my mother, family and my dog first. The photo of my mother is still the best photo to me in my photographer’s life.

“I owe everything to my mother, the first photo I ever took was of her, which I still think is the most beautiful photo I have ever taken.” Masayoshi Sukita

Masayoshi Sukita mother
©Sukita – A portrait of Sukita’s mother shot by Sukita, 1957

You started as an assistant to the photographer Shisui Tanahashi. What were the biggest challenges of that period?

Tanahashi taught me how to be responsible as a professional. He always treated his cameras very carefully, so I have been doing the same. I just graduated from college, everything was challenging. I learnt a lot from him.

What do you enjoy most about photography, and what are the most rewarding aspects? Do you have a favorite camera or film? What lens best satisfied your visual creativity and point of view? Some people feel that black and white photos are closer to the spirit, to memory, while color is more closely linked to the human dimension. What is your point of view?

Best thing about photography is that it can record the “moments” eternally. In the photos, my mother is still alive. That’s why I am doing photography. I don’t care about my camera brands so much. Recently I’ve been using Sony or Canon etc.. digital cameras, I used to use Mamiya or Hasselbrad etc.. before digital cameras. I like black/white photos. I think it allows people to imagine the colours. Another reason is that I grew up with it.

Masayoshi Sukita Marc Bolan
©Sukita – Marc Bolan photographed by Sukita 1972

Photography contains within itself the peculiarity of capturing aspects of human emotion that are otherwise not decipherable or perceptible. Did you face some unexpected moment during your photography shoot that made a difference in your work?

I am just trying to capture interesting moments of the objects.  Some people, like D. Bowie, are making unexpecting movements. So I am just concentrating on capturing the moments. I used to set up the session, but turned to make it 50-50 between the objects and me, a photographer.

Many of your photos capture the style of their time, even if they aren’t strictly fashionable. When starting a new photo session, did you plan ahead, or did you follow the flow?

I just set up some basic situations for sessions. The sessions are built with ad-libs with the objects.

Masayoshi Sukita 2008 tate modern trim
©Sukita – Tate Modern Trim, 2008

Since 1972, you have collaborated with David Bowie, scrutinizing and portraying snapshots, making many moments of his career eternal. When you first met, did you imagine or have a sign that it would last for many years? What are your best memories about this friendship?

I was not sure if I felt that I wanted to do it for 40 years, but sure I wanted to shoot him again. He was photogenic, an interesting person to shoot indeed. The next time I shot him in 1973, I was feeling I would like to go after his career as possible.

77 1980 Masayoshi Sukita David Bowie
© Sukita – David Bowie in Japan, 1980

Can you share with us a meaningful story from the backstage of your photos or a set of projects during the collaboration with David Bowie?

I remember well about a photo shoot in Kyoto in 1980. I spent all day with him taking photos in the city – from his hotel room in the morning to a disco at midnight. He rented a car and drove it by himself! He knew of the road of Kyoto much better than me… he took me anywhere we wanted to visit. We took a lot of photos where local people go, not touristic places just as temples or shrines. It was another fun memory.

What did you feel before shooting live on stage? There is a stage that has excited you the most or do you have a particular memory about it?

I just concentrate to capture the best moments – the same as studio sessions. But live is more spontaneous and active, it’s sort of difficult but fun, exciting as well. 

Masayoshi Sukita Iggy Pop Japan 1977
©Sukita – Iggy Pop at Tea Ceremony 1977

You also have notable collaborations with T. Rex’s Marc Bolan, Mickey Finn, and Iggy Pop. Do you have a favorite photo of them? What makes it special for you? Any anecdotes about it?

Regarding T.Rex, we had a 4 hour session in London in1972, before my first session with Bowie. They were playing new songs with guitar and percussion in the shooting, it was just like rehearsal for their live tour. I could take “live” photos in the studio session because of this.

Masayoshi Sukita TR 08 bolan finn
©Sukita – T. Rex Marc Bolan and Mickey Finn 

Iggy, first I took him in 1977, came to Japan with Bowie because Bowie produced his new album (Idiot). I organized a studio and took two of them. After the session, one of the photos of Bowie was used for the cover of “Heroes”, Iggy’s was used for the “Party” album. I also took Iggy to a Japanese tea ceremony, it is one of my favorites. I took Iggy again in a studio in 2013, it was another good session – I could see how he changed. They all were very nice to work with. They looked to act naturally and relaxed in the sessions, and it makes them and photos special to me.

Masayoshi Sukita Jaoan lake
©Sukita – 2019

From Japan to London and New York. Did moving in different parts of the world influence your way of seeing life and being creative? Did you notice that helped you to grow as a person and as an artist? Did it help you in other areas of your life?

The cities absolutely influenced me, plus Paris in the fashion aspect when I was young. The western cities are just shown in movies or music, I adored the cultures. It is very different from Japanese culture, it looked very interesting and appealed to me. Recentry, I am trying to re-find our own cultures too. I am finding our uniqueness.

Masayoshi Sukita Iggy Pop
©Sukita – Iggy Pop 2013

What do you think will be the evolution of photography in the era of social media and Artificial Intelligence?

Technologies change the world all the time. but I think, after all, a human’s sense is the most important no matter how technology progresses. I mean, good is good, beautiful is beautiful. I just want to create something universal.

1973 Masayoshi Sukita David Bowie
©Sukita – Dawn of Hope (composite image), Radio City Music Hall, New York, 1973

Since it was the analogue film era I was intrigued by the amazing final composition of “Dawn of Hope”. Is it a double exposure with a mirror and a sunrise? How did you create the photo?

This was composed with the Dye-transfer process in the 70’s. It was from “Bowie in the mirror” + “snap shot of dawn” I took by myself. I’ve lost the film for many years, I recently found it.

When I found it, I was surprised how it looked amazing! I wanted to share another great photo with people.

Masayoshi Sukita’s Instagram
Photos courtesy of Masayoshi Sukita, A special thanks to Aki Sukita

Last Updated on May 18, 2024 by retrofuturista

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