Masayoshi Sukita: Photographing the Starman
(originally published Trouble isn 94, September 2012)
“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, 2011
Masayoshi Sukita was never going to be a typical candidate for the monicker of ‘Rock Photographer’. Entirely devoid of the self-importance, arrogance, or swagger that seems to so characterise the profession, the genial and quietly spoken 74 year-old positively beams, rather than boasts, when reminiscing about his extraordinary career.
Visiting Australia for only the second time since 1988, Sukita was in Melbourne [August/September 2012] for a capsule exhibition of photographic works printed to accompany the launch of his new book Speed Of Life. The event was opened by the Consul-General of Japan in Melbourne, Hidenobu Sobashima-san, and saw Sukita subjected to the level of clamour and flash bulbs usually reserved for his famous subjects. The beautifully produced and sizeable tome documents his nearly forty year professional collaboration with David Bowie; over eighty percent of the images selected have never been seen or published before.
Oh, and it took seven years. “One of the reasons why it took so long to complete is because we were thinking that, since the photographer is Japanese, we wanted it to reflect a kind of Japanese style with the design of the book. In the middle we … my staff and I, reconsidered what is the best concept and decided to go with a more ‘Western’ style, so that is the main reason for the length of time”, Sukita admits.
Sukita was born in a small coal mining town in Nogata Shi, Fukuoka prefecture in the north region of Kyushu, at the southern end of Japan. “Having seen the film Billy Elliott [Stephen Daldry, 2000], called Little Dancer in Japan, I sympathise with the lead character as, like him, I grew up in a coal mining community too. I think I was like Billy Elliott, his creativity and his spirit wanting to break free”.
Sukita’s father was in the Japanese Army and was killed on the front line in China two days after the war ended on 15 August, 1945. “My memories of my father are limited. But I have a strong memory of him taking photographs; in particular, I remember one photo, which he sent home from China, of some of his fellow soldiers having a bath in an oil drum, relaxing together. I have a vivid recollection of that photo, but sadly I don’t have it anymore”.
It fell to Sukita’s uncle, his father’s younger brother, to assume a mentoring role. “He used to act in a road company when he was young. He was very kind to me and would often take me to the theatre and the cinema. These trips were very important moments in my early life. I especially loved going to the cinema. I was first introduced to it around 1943 when I was five …” he recalls. “In my teens, which coincided with the Fifties, the decade when the world’s cultures were maturing and blooming, I started seeing American films – during the war, Western films had been banned – and the world started to open up for me. It was so exciting, to watch. I would cycle all the way from Nogata to Fukuoka and back home, which is about a 100km journey. My heroes became Fred Astaire, Marlon Brando and James Dean … influential movies for me were those in which I encountered rock ’n’ roll, such as Elvis Presley films … When James Dean died in the car collision [in 1955], it was a great shock for me. He was such a big star I really couldn’t believe it. I was very, very sad because he meant so much to me”.
After twice failing his university entrance exam, Sukita decided to pursue his passion for the visual medium and entered a photographic school in Osaka to study commercial photography. “I didn’t attend … every day as I had already learnt most of the practical aspects myself the previous year. So I often missed the lessons and went to the cinema. When I left Osaka I discovered French New Wave cinema and British films too. I felt that the best school lessons were from watching world cinema. Looking back now it was probably a lucky thing that I failed that exam”, Sukita comments dryly.
After working as an assistant to an established photographer in Osaka, Sukita entered the photographic division of an advertising agency there in 1961. In 1965 he moved to Tokyo and worked for a production company called Delta Monde, doing fashion photographs and filming TV commercials. “Maybe one of the reasons why I was interested in fashion is because my parents owned a cosmetics company. I don’t have a clear memory of any posters or advertising related to their business, but even without realising it, maybe I was already part of that industry. When I began my professional life, I worked with the major cosmetics companies in Japan like Kanebo and Shiseido”.
Sukita went freelance in 1970 and travelled to London for the first time in 1972 with his friend the stylist Yasuko Takahashi (known as Yacco) who had befriended Marc Bolan’s manager, Tony Secunda, the previous year. Takahashi arranged a meeting for Sukita with Bolan who, having reviewed his portfolio, agreed to a photo shoot. During his stay, Sukita was intrigued by posters he saw for David Bowie, utilising photography by Brian Ward. Despite never having heard of Bowie, Sukita was determined to attend his concert at Royal Festival Hall. “I quickly realised that David Bowie wasn’t a regular performer. I felt that there was much more going on, so much more depth and imagination than from regular musicians. I understood entirely how he felt about using and playing with different media, how he was also inspired by cinema and combined other ideas with his own concepts to create something bold and new. David-san was expressing many of the interests I also felt and could relate to, ideas that I was trying to show in my own work”, he asserts. “One of the reasons why I was so inspired by seeing David-san for the first time was because he is not just a musician, he is also artist and performer in the ‘underground’ area … the way he acted on stage, his physical movement and expression corporelle was really different from other artists”.
Once again Takahashi used her contacts to contrive a meeting, this time with Bowie’s then manager Tony Defries, who had asked along the more established photographer Mick Rock for his assessment of Sukita’s work. “I look on [him] as a key person in my career, someone who helped me. I’m pretty sure that it was really Mick who decided I was okay to work with David and I am very grateful to him for that. All of this happened within a week of seeing David for the first time … It was a very fast and a very exciting time for me.”
Their first studio session, before Bowie’s show at the Rainbow Theatre, lasted just two hours. The results were featured in a popular Japanese fashion magazine, an-an, and received a huge reader response. Sukita then photographed Bowie at the venue, “One of the photos from the studio session was blown up and exhibited in the foyer … which I was very pleased about. It proved that David-san really did like my work, and that was very important to me”.
Theirs was to be an enduring, if necessarily long-distance, relationship. “I would never have believed until Sukita-san showed me the contact sheets that he had taken so many photographs of my trips to Japan (and other occasional cities) over so many years. From the early Ziggy shows including the well known Rainbow concert in London, the market trips in Tokyo, temples in Kyoto and even the subway adventures: it seems Sukita-san got them all”, Bowie reflected.
Sukita’s best known image came from an April, 1977 press tour, “David-san came to Japan with Iggy Pop to promote the latter’s [début] album The Idiot  – that Bowie-san had produced – and a chance for a photo session with the two of them presented itself. The photos were meant to have a ‘punk’ feel. David-san had asked Yacco to get as many leather jackets as possible and instead of shooting on a straight white background, I included the door edge to break the image up and give a rougher feel. The whole session was over in an hour”.
Sukita had no inkling that his stark black-and-white studies would achieve global recognition, “Afterwards I selected about twenty photos to give to David-san, including the shot on the Heroes LP sleeve . When he contacted me to say he wanted to use it, I was delighted. Later in the year I had a call from Mika [Fukui], of the Sadistic Mika Band. She was in London and phoned to tell me that Heroes had been voted Melody Maker magazine’s best cover image of the year. I was very proud. I am still very fond of this photo”.
Indeed, both Melody Maker and NME magazines named the release, the second instalment of Bowie’s so-called ‘Berlin Trilogy’, as their respective ‘Album of the Year’. Over a decade later, Sukita would also receive the cover commission for the début self-titled release from Bowie’s short-lived band, Tin Machine (1989).
The recognition Sukita received for his music photography paved the way for other projects. Many years after he was first captivated by film as a child, Sukita would go on to have his own somewhat fleeting Hollywood adventure while working with Eiko Ishioka (1938-2012), who won the Academy Award for Best Costume Design for Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1993. “I was engaged with Eiko Ishioka, one of our great artists in Japan, on Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters [Paul Schrader, 1985], and we went to Florida and Los Angles on a photo shoot for [executive producers] George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. We even went to Coppola’s private place, and that house was just huge and has a vineyard as well, and I felt like the scale is just too different that I’m engaging in, just too huge, too much, and everything’s too overwhelming”, he recounts. “And after the shoot we went to New York to take the photo of [composer] Philip Glass [who did the score]. It took a lot of effort for us to arrange this session, but as he didn’t like to have his photo taken, he cancelled on us at the last minute. So we didn’t have anything to do, and asked one of our friends living in New York ‘what’s new here now?’ and my friend suggested that I see an interesting new film by Jim Jarmusch [Stranger Than Paradise, 1984]. I was very inspired by him, so when we returned to Japan I asked a friend who worked at Victor Music Corporation about it, and my friend knew Jarmusch, so we wrote lots of letters to try to reach him, and then we also sent a portfolio, and finally he responded”.
Sukita became the still photographer on Jarmusch’s third feature film Mystery Train (1989), a three-story narrative based around characters staying at a dilapidated hotel in Memphis. It is anchored by the story of a young couple from Yokohama who have come, at her behest, to visit Graceland, although he prefers the music of Carl Perkins. Sukita produced a book of his photographs from the set, and the similarity between the film plot and some of his own experiences navigating a very different cultural ethos is striking. “Coppola was just spending so much money, and wanted to have a very large-scale filming experience, but in contrast the style of Jarmusch is kind of a ‘road movie’, very tight, limited budget, and that was fitting to my style as well”, Sukita explains. He also struck up a friendship with the film’s cinematographer Robbie Müller, “We are about the same age and we are both photographers, so there were many things to learn, and to share, particularly in terms of experimenting with lighting, from warm lights, to harsh and fluorescent like a supermarket. This helped me in my own work, particularly when photographing David-san in concert, as he is also very concerned with lighting”.
Curator Gail Buckland selected Sukita’s work for the exhibition Who Shot Rock & Roll: A Photographic History, 1955 to the Present (30 October, 2009 – 31 January, 2010) at the Brooklyn Museum, and for her book of the same name. Sukita was gratified by his inclusion, “As one of the people who has engaged in taking photos of the rock music scene, unfortunately I think Japan is really a bit behind, and I was surprised to be chosen. I really respect that kind of American attitude towards rock ’n’ roll. It’s part of their culture, quite reverential, particularly since Elvis Presley. But in Japan, although rock ’n’ roll is popular it’s [regarded] more as entertainment and amusement. Through documenting these artists and exhibiting my work, I would like to be part of making the tradition of rock ’n’ roll more a part of Japanese culture”.
Sukita would like to work with Iggy Pop and Brian Eno again, and remembers fondly a shoot with Cyndi Lauper, “She was very cute and friendly. She was a favourite in Japanese culture”. He is less interested in the current crop of music stars, “It’s not really my style to take photographs of someone who is already major in the music scene. I much prefer to know the newer artists, and keep taking their photo as they become bigger in the industry. I like to watch their evolution … I want to take the steps together with the artists … to bear witness …”
As well as finalising arrangements for Speed Of Life, Sukita has been immersed in the process of selecting images for his retrospective Sound & Vision in Tokyo, a title which cheekily references Bowie’s 1977 single of the same name, and his 1989 box-set. The three hundred works range from a study of his mother he took as an 18 year-old, his fashion, theatre and film output, his enduring interest in the sub-culture, and inevitably his music work. Particularly poignant are the images of the devastation wrought upon the body of a badly burned victim of the Nagasaki atomic bomb who consented to allow Sukita to photograph him. “The resulting portraits brought home the immense suffering of war and how it continued to affect many people for the rest of their lives. This opportunity made me realise how difficult it was to take photographs of people, to capture their lives in a portrait”.
Sukita also discovered how difficult it was to represent his own life through his work. “At first, I had double the number of photos, it was quite hard to narrow them down. I wanted to make a balance, and not just focus on the music ones … to show a range of all the work I’ve done in the past, and speak to the audience. I suppose that the people who are going to look at the new [Bowie] publication might think, ‘oh what kind of person took these older photos?’, so I thought it was a good opportunity to show all my work, to better represent who I am”.
In a strange coincidence, the closing ceremony of last month’s London Olympics also produced by Stephen Daldry and billed as “A Symphony of British Music”, gave Sukita an unexpected jolt. One of his images was projected during a montage tribute to Bowie’s status as a music and fashion icon. The shot, from a February, 1973 session at RCA studios in New York, showed Bowie wearing specially commissioned stage clothes by Kansai Yamamoto. “Seeing it was quite a shock, but also surprising, and it made me happy as well. I was excited to see it. I realised how I’ve been working with such superstars all these years, but it also lets me know I’m not finished yet!”. So yes, at his current rate, Sukita-san may well click into eternity.
(Interview interpretation by Kazuko Harukaze)
Images courtesy of the artist & Genesis Publications, UK. © Masayoshi Sukita, 2012.