meet the man who's been photographing david bowie for 40 years

We speak to Masayoshi Sukita, the man whose images defined the life and career of David Bowie.

by J.L. Sirisuk
11 January 2016, 10:00am

A Day In Kyoto 3-Hankyu Train,1980

UPDATE: David Bowie died on the 11th January 2016. At this time our thoughts are with his family.

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, a man who would take his photograph for the next 40 years.

Masayoshi Sukita, whose new show of Bowie images is up now in New York, draws inspiration from classic American films along with the photography of Irving Penn and Dennis Stock. After working in advertising, Sukita became a freelance photographer in 1970, capturing the art, film, and rock 'n' roll scenes of both London and New York.

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 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

How did the Heroes album cover shoot come about?
Bowie came to Japan with Iggy Pop and was actually producing Iggy Pop. 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.

Do you have one favorite image of Bowie?

Heroes, 1977

Why that one?
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.

Ki, 1989


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

david bowie
Masayoshi Sukita