“Sukita has the smell of rock about him,” observed Joe Strummer, front man of the legendary punk band the Clash, who recognized the heart of a rebel in Japanese photographer Masayoshi Sukita. Though the word “iconic” is thrown around rather loosely these days, there’s simply no other way to describe Sukita’s seminal portraits of David Bowie. Over the past 50 years, these photographs have become a pivotal reference point for artists, designers, and photographers alike.
“The photographs were made from the heat of artists’ passions,” Sukita says of his collaboration with Bowie that first began in 1972 after he came across a poster featuring the young musician in a “Save the Whale” charity concert at London’s Royal Festival Hall. Intrigued by this vision, Sukita immediately purchased a ticket to see Bowie perform, an act that would transform the course of both their lives forevermore.
As an emerging figure at the forefront of a rising avant-garde, Bowie’s futuristic glam rock captured the spirit of a new generation coming of age in the wake of 1960s liberation and counterculture moments. Freed from the repressive restrictions of cisheterosexual codes, Bowie introduced the world to the delectable realms of the androgynous decades before gender nonconformative identities entered the mainstream.
Sukita’s work played an important role in how Bowie’s iconoclastic image was received in the moment. His unerring ability to fuse the classical and radical with effortless panache rendered Bowie as unusual yet accessible, foreign yet familiar, while preserving his enigmatic appeal. But this discipline extends to Sukita’s entire oeuvre, one that is now receiving its proper due with the publication of his first retrospective monograph, Sukita: Eternity (ACC Art Books).
East of Eden
Hailing from the coal-mining town of Nogata on the southern island of Kyushu, Masayoshi Sukita was born to parents who ran a hardware and household goods store. During World War II, his father served in the army, dying just two days after Japan’s surrender on August 17, 1945 — the same year young Masayoshi entered elementary school.
During the 1950s, American pop culture became a global phenomenon through its mixture of art, music, fashion, and film. As Hollywood and the music industry seized upon the image of youth in crisis as in Rebel Without a Cause, it began exporting youth culture writ large. As a teen coming of age, Sukita developed a passion for jazz, rock, and movies starring 50s icons like Marlon Brando and James Dean — all of which helped the artist to establish his own aesthetic sensibilities.
“When I was 18, my mother bought me a Ricohflex, which was a reasonable Japanese camera,” Sukita recalls. “I was purely having fun with it to take family, friends and random snaps. In later years, when I was working as a professional photographer, I felt that photography is ‘eternal time.’” Early in his journey, Sukita discovered the camera’s ability to preserve the ephemeral, passing moment and transform it into an object of contemplation that transcends its original circumstance.
While enrolled in the Commercial Photography Department of Shasen, the Japan Institute of Photography and Film, Sukita came upon some snapshots that his father made of himself and friends while serving in China during the war that revealed quiet moments of repose between life-or-death fights. These scenes of his father and fellow soldiers sunbathing in an oil drum were more than mere mementos of a summer’s day; they offered a portal into the eternal through photography.
In 1965, Masayoshi moved to Tokyo to work at Delta Monde Production, creating advertising campaigns for fashion and beauty companies. Working with JAZZ, a men’s fashion brand, he created a portfolio of Rene Magritte-inspired surrealist work, an approach that carried over well into his early rock and roll photography. In 1970, Sukita began working freelance and traveled to New York where he photographed Jimi Hendrix during his final US tour, saw Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground perform live at Max’s Kansas City, and visited Andy Warhol’s Factory.
Two years later, Sukita arrived in London with Yasuko “Yacco” Takahashi, a stylist who helped connect the photographer with glam rock pioneers T. Rex and Marc Bolan. Over the next six months, Sukita would photograph the band as they traveled the globe, an experience that inadvertently lead him to discover the poster of Bowie while walking through London one day.
In the book, Sukita describes seeing Bowie as “completely new, innovative, extraordinary and incredible; it had a profound effect on me. [Bowie is not just a musician. He is also an artist and performer in the ‘underground’ area. The way he acted on stage, his physical movement and ‘expression corporelle’ were very different from other artists.”
At that time, Bowie’s manager, Tony Defries only allowed Mick Rock and Leee Black Childers to photograph the rising star. But the JAZZ portfolio changed his mind and he booked Bowie for a two-hour shoot with Sukita on July 13, 1972 to resounding success. “The first session was in a relaxing mood,” Sukita remembers. “I prepared a bottle of wine David liked. He was drinking in the session and looked relaxed. One of the photos from the session was hung in a hall of the Rainbow Theatre at his concert. He was not only good-looking but also doing interesting movements, from pantomime. That made me interested in him.”
It was the start of a beautiful friendship, as the old saying goes. Over the next four decades, Masayoshi and David Bowie would collaborate to create some of the musician’s most iconic images including the cover of Bowie’s 1977 album Heroes — which Bowie himself would recreate for a 2014 Instagram post donning a Daft Punk helmet. The image marked the end of an era, as punk came to the fore, and Sukita went on to work with artists like Iggy Pop, Joe Strummer, Madness, Culture Club, and David Byrne, to name just a few.
Now 83, Sukita spent the past year delving through his archive to unearth an extraordinary collection of work, many of which he had completely forgotten. Paging through the book, Sukita’s influence is clear not only in his aesthetics but also in his ability to be ever-present in Bowie’s life. “I would never have believed that Sukita-san had taken so many photographs over so many years,” Bowie recalls in the book. “From the early Ziggy shows, including the well-known Rainbow concert in London, to the market trips in Tokyo, temples in Kyoto and even the subway adventures, it seems Sukita-san got them all.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, including Time, Vogue, Aperture, and Vice, among others.
Sukita: Eternity, ACC Art Books, £50.00