meet the man who photographed david bowie for 40 years (and counting)

Photographic legend Masayoshi Sukita finally has his first U.S. exhibition of Bowie images.

by J.L. Sirisuk
18 November 2015, 9:25pm

A Day In Kyoto 3-Hankyu Train,1980

In 1972, David Bowie became Ziggy Stardust, an alien superstar with enigmatic appeal. This was also the year that he would meet a man from Japan with a fondness for rock 'n' roll and the films of Marlon Brando who would end up taking his photograph for the next 40 years.

While in London to shoot T-Rex's Marc Bolan, Sukita came across an image of Bowie which incited an immediate need to shoot him. Spanning decades and cities including New York, London and Kyoto, Sukita would capture Bowie's numerous transformations from Ziggy to the Thin White Duke, through to his New York portrait sitting in 2009. We caught up with Sukita-san at the Morrison Gallery Hotel in SoHo to talk about photography, Bowie, and their decades-long collaboration.

The Bewley Brothers, 1973

When did your relationship with photography start?
I was six or seven years old just after the war back in 1945. After the war, everything came into Japan from America and to me it was very attractive to see music or art from the Western culture. When I was in high school I first got a camera from my mother. That was the very beginning of my interest in photography.

Why did you gravitate towards rock 'n' roll?
When I was in high school, a lot of music and movies came into Japan from America, like Elvis Presley or the movie stars like Marlon Brando. I was so into those films and music.

I Saw You Again in the Rainbow Theatre, 1973

What can you tell me about the first time you saw David Bowie?
I went to London to take photos of T-Rex and back then I didn't know who David Bowie was. Then I saw a poster on the street and I became interested in the visual. I didn't know that much about London back in 72 when I met Bowie, or that he was a pretty iconic person already.

I saw his concert in London. There was a double bill with Lou Reed and that was an amazing show. I was excited to see him on stage and instantly thought, "I want to shoot him."

The First Time I Saw You, 1972

Can you tell me about the first session you had with Bowie back in 72?
On the day of the shoot, there was a famous photographer called David Bailey and he was shooting Bowie during the day and I was going to shoot Bowie during the evening. It felt really competitive because I already knew who David Bailey was, so there was a kind of pressure.

I researched David Bowie's favourite wine and got a bottle. All day he had already worked on something else, so when it was my turn I thought, "Okay, let's open up some wine and relax."

A Day in Kyoto 3 - Platform, 1980

40 years is a long time to photograph someone. What can you tell me about that bond?
Every time Bowie comes to Japan, he calls me and says, "I am here. Let's do a photo session." Bowie has always loved Eastern culture and he loves Kyoto, the traditional town in Japan. Since I was young, I have always been into Western culture and Bowie is so into Eastern culture so that's the bond or relationship we have. If we were always in New York City together, it wouldn't be a four decades-long relationship.

Loves to be Loved, 1973

Do you have one favourite image of Bowie?

How did the Heroes album cover shoot come about?
Bowie came to Japan with Iggy Pop and was actually producing his producing. Out of the blue, Bowie called me up, and there was no creative set-up in the studio, just simple lighting and a simple set-up and Bowie started moving on his own. He had a clean hair style and makeup but he started messing it up and moved around on his own. Before Bowie, I always thought taking a portrait required set-up.

Heroes, 1977

Why is it your favorite?
Back in 72 or 73 when he was still the star of glam-rock in London he was wearing the makeup with the costumes, like really edgy costumes, but then when he took the Heroes photo, he wore a simple leather jacket and he wasn't into fashion that much. That's another thing I love about him. He's not specific about his fashion or anything; he can be natural. He started off in the glam-rock scene with some future space fantasy image but if everybody is into it he's like, "Okay. Move onto the next."

Heroes to Come, 1977

How do you feel sitting in this room looking at all of these photos you've taken of Bowie?
I just released Genesis, a huge photo book, and I included hundreds of photos of David Bowie that I shot for the last four decades. I remember all the memories but this is not the end. I want to keep shooting Bowie.

READ: How David Bowie Became an Icon for Sexual Liberation

The exhibition is open until November 30th at the Morrison Hotel Gallery in New York.

Ki, 1989



Text J.L. Sirisuk
All images (c) Masayoshi Sukita, courtesy of the Morrison Hotel Gallery
Translator: MaiMai Sakamoto

david bowie
Masayoshi Sukita