Sukita: the Japanese photographer who captured rock music royalty

Masayoshi Sukita remembers the first time he met David Bowie. It was in 1972; the rock star had adopted her character from Ziggy Stardust and was set to become world famous. Despite his limited English, the Japanese photographer contacted Bowie’s management and persuaded them to arrange a shoot. Sukita says he wasn’t intimidated: “I felt very relaxed. I was nine years older than him and already had significant experience as a portrait painter and fashion photographer.

“It was later, after this first shoot, that my interest in David Bowie grew… I was fascinated by the way Bowie expressed himself. He was no ordinary artist. He created a new world for himself centered around a space character 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 wearing a high-fashion Japanese Hakama costume – pale face as death, a golden circle painted on his forehead. In 1977, he again photographed Bowie in austere black and white, arms raised rigidly framing his face, in an image that would later become the cover of his album. Hero.

Untitled, RCA Studio, New York, 1973

(Sukita / ACC Art Books)

Idiot I, Studio Harajuku, Tokyo, 1977

(Sukita / ACC Art Books)

Photographer Guido Harari says, “Sukita captured Bowie modulating and mutating, reconstructing and deconstructing. In his photos, we can even see the real David Jones, under thick makeup, red hair, Kansai [Yamamoto]outrageous stage clothes and all.

It’s clear the relationship has been among the most significant in Sukita’s career, but it wasn’t her only collaboration that produced some of the most striking pop music images of the 20th century. Despite this, he remains relatively unknown outside of his home country, which the first retrospective book of his work to be published outside of Japan hopes to change.

Sukita: eternity, published by ACC Art Books, follows the photographer from his wartime childhood in the mining town of Nogata. Her father died two days after Japan’s surrender in 1945 and her mother struggled to make ends meet, even though she bought him her 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 features moving photographs of television screens showing the faces of Marlon Brando and other American movie stars, superimposed on Japanese figures, showing an early fascination with pop glamor and portraiture.

(Sukita / ACC Art Books)

Mother, Nogata, Fukuoka, 1957

(Sukita / ACC Art Books)

New York Pop Festival, Downing Stadium, Randall’s Island, New York, 1970

(Sukita / ACC Art Books)

After studying at the Japanese Institute of Photography and Film, he moved to Tokyo to work in fashion and advertising. He became independent in 1970 and moved to New York City, hanging out in the Warhol factory and photographing Jimi Hendrix. He didn’t stay long. He says: “In the early 1970s it seemed like the culture of London was maybe more interesting than that of New York, so I felt drawn to researching what was going on there. I also felt that there was an interesting cultural shift in the music going on that particularly appealed to me.

In June 1972, he began six intensive months of filming Marc Bolan and T Rex, following the group on tour. This is the year Bowie met Bowie, who at the time was as fascinated by Japanese culture as Sukita was by England, drawing heavily on Kabuki theater to create her character Ziggy Stardust. 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 themselves didn’t have,” recalls Sukita. “David found the savagery in Iggy; Iggy found intelligence in David. It always seemed to me that was the reason they worked so well together. One of Sukita’s Pop images was used for the cover of her 1981 album Party but, according to Yacco Takahashi, he forgot to credit Sukita. “Sukita’s response was right, ‘Whatever, Iggy is a great guy!’ Takahashi says. Pop, for his part, said that “of all the photographers I have known, Sukita is the one I trust the most.”

Untitled, RCA Studio, New York, 1973

(Sukita / ACC Art Books)

‘Get It On’, (Melody Maker cover), Pelling + Cross studio, London, 1972

(Sukita / ACC Art Books)

Jordan (Pamela Rooke), London, 1977

(Sukita / ACC Art Books)

He continued to work prolifically throughout the 1980s, photographing punk and New Wave stars including Madness, Johnny Rotten, Culture Club, David Byrne and Cyndi Lauper. Big fan of underground cinema, he was the photographer of Jarmusch’s third feature film, Mystery Train, in 1989. He of course continued to shoot Bowie regularly.

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Back in Japan, he often worked with the flagship electronic group Yellow Magic Orchestra. “There can be few better iconic images of an era than Masayoshi Sukita’s cover for YMO’s album Solid state survivorTokyo-based poet Chris Mosdell explains. “The interrupted game of mahjong, the bottle of Coke, the Chinese revolutionary hat, the female model in the transparent red blouse and YMO in their red Neo-Mao costumes. is both emotionally immediate and permanently historical.

Cover of the album ‘Solid State Survivor’, Tokyo, 1979

(Sukita / ACC Art Books)

Untitled, Shibuya, Tokyo, 2010

(Sukita / ACC Art Books)

Sheena & The Rokkets – ‘Rokket Ride’ album cover, AL Studio, Tokyo, 2014

(Sukita / ACC Art Books)

Now in her eighties, Sukita continues to work, mainly in the form of street photography in her hometown of Kyushu. “It’s hard work,” he says of aging in the industry. “In your 40s it was good, but when you’re 70 there’s no one your age in the whole room. Young people 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 side.

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 so until my death. The photographs are immense, universal; photographs are love.

Sukita: eternity is published on June 22 by ACC Art Books. A deluxe edition is also available.

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