‘Photographs are… love’ – Masayoshi Sukita interview during his visit to Australia

6 Sep 2020


Photo: Takako Kaneshige


The musician’s name was David Bowie. The photographer, Masayoshi Sukita.

A large 300 page photo essay, SPEED OF LIFE   SUKITA | BOWIE, reflecting the long-term collaboration between the two, as well as Bowie’s history, has been released by Genesis as a worldwide 2000 copy limited edition.

Masayuki Sukita travelled to Australia for the book launch, which was combined with the August 30 opening of an exhibition of a selection of Bowie and Sukita’s collaborative photographic works at Mossgreen Gallery in Melbourne’s South Yarra.

Sukita commands enormous respect not only from Bowie, but from numerous musicians, including Marc Bolan from T.Rex, David Sylvian, and in Japan the Yellow Magic Orchestra, Sadistic Mika Band, Imawano Kiyoshirō, Tomoyasu Hotei and more, and over the years has captured many of each of their memorable moments on film.

I met with this extremely busy photographer, who currently has exhibitions on in three galleries in Japan, including the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, and asked him about the book, about Bowie, and about photography.

-How did this book project come about?

A few years ago, the publisher Genesis got in touch with me about A Time to Live, which is a photo-based chronicle of the twentieth century.
They asked me to let them use my photo of David Bowie dressed from head to toe in Kansai Yamamoto’s clothing. The reason was that it was a stereotypical photo depicting music merging with fashion. To have one’s photos in this book is a great honour, so I agreed straight away. Then when I was in London later, I paid a visit to the publishing house.

Every book put out by this publisher is a luxurious collector’s edition – the kind of book that is made to last generations. I was really blown away by this book culture which would have been inconceivable in Japan. I never dared think that one such book would end up with my name on the cover, but when I selected some of my Bowie photos and showed them, it got approved through a Bowie researcher. “Let’s publish”, they said. That was about seven years ago.


Image courtesy of Hedleys Booksellers

Once these books are ordered, they are produced one at a time, by hand, at a bookbindery in Italy.
Each copy is autographed by David Bowie and Masayoshi Sukita.

-Did you and David Bowie choose the photos together?

Basically I passed on my wishes; that’s it. Being so far apart, it’s not like you can easily arrange a meeting. But when it’s a book of this level that you’re talking about, well, I found myself wanting to decide everything based on my own egoism. I wanted to look at it objectively. And I wanted it to be something that would go down in history, on various levels. No doubt David has his own views from his perspective as a musician too. We decided on things in a pretty loose, flexible way. 

David’s the kind of person who doesn’t really say “I want this, I want that”. During photo sessions too, he tends to leave things completely up to me.

When I photographed Bowie, I would hardly ever approach magazines and so on in order to make money out of the work. When we caught up in London or Japan every now and then, we’d do a session, then I’d circle my ten or twenty favourites on a contact sheet and show it to him. He always gave me his approval for every single one. Then I would use them in the media in Japan as I fancied, while Bowie would give me a call whenever he needed a certain photo to use in America or the UK. That’s the way things were for years.

-You said at the opening party, ‘It was because of the distance between us that we were able to go on collaborating for forty years.’

If you’re close together all the time, you get sick of each other, right? Just like with couples or lovers – you see each other’s flaws. But if there’s a certain amount of distance, you don’t notice the flaws, you know, you can maintain a sense of admiration. So it really is possible to hold on to the desire to photograph the same subject over four long decades!

-It makes it sound like your relationship with Bowie is a bit like one of lovers!

No, no, it’s deeper than that.

With art it’s like that, isn’t it? Creating something great is your top priority. It’s everything. You dedicate years of your life to it, and it’s the reason you eat each day; the reason you live. The desire to express something through photos has been with me since I was in photography school and I’d say it’ll remain with me until I die. Photographs are a huge, universal… love.

-Not lust, but love, you say?

Whether the subject is a landscape or David Bowie, it’s a generalisation, but that’s how I would put it.  

Not that I spend my days thinking about all that! It just came to me now. These questions are getting me thinking. I don’t get thinking too deeply unless there’s an opportunity like this. I’m pretty honest, aren’t I?

By the way, you said just now that your work with David isn’t about money, but one does need money to get by, so…

I do advertisements. I’m popular you know!

I do know.  So, in your mind, do you separate the two categories – the advertisements are for income, and the work with David is for enjoyment?

No, they’re both for enjoyment.

For example, I had the opportunity to photograph Ray Charles for an advertisement. He had been my biggest idol since I was a teenager. He’s one of the things I love, in the way I was just describing. And I get to see him in the flesh. So no, it’s not work just because it’s an advertisement, it really is something I do with passion.

His eyesight was poor, and the floor of the big film studio we were using was covered with cables. It was so bad that you couldn’t walk around. So we moved all the cables to the sides, and decided to greet him from the moment he walked into the studio by clapping to a beat all together.

Ray Charles arrived. We all started clapping in time. An assistant took his arm and led him up on to the stage, and even as he approached the stage, the rhythm of the clapping got him into the mood, so he was excited and grooving along. When I saw that, I thought, I’m already more than half way there with my photo shoot.

For a cameraman, it’s this first stage that makes or breaks a photo session. It’s not just about taking the photos. It’s about creating an atmosphere. You need to win the trust of your subject, even if you’ve never met before. That is the basic principle of photography, whether you’re shooting Bowie or Ray Charles.

'Starman' 1973, Masayoshi Sukita

-So in this way, you’ve photographed many musicians, haven’t you?

Bit by bit, I have. But to keep at it is a difficult thing. Not many can do it.

I’ve had my moments. Once, when I was in my forties, I was shooting a punk scene in London. It was in a little live house, and teenage boys were moshing, half naked, covered in sweat. And I take step back and look at myself objectively – there I was, a man in my forties, getting bumped around taking photos in the mosh pit.

It really is a tough job. I mean, in my forties, it was still fine. But when you’re in your seventies, there’s no one your age in the entire venue. The youngsters look at me with mystified expressions on their faces.

-As if to say, “who is this old guy?”

Exactly. I looked at old men the same way when I was young. In now I’m on the receiving end.

-What musicians have you photographed lately?

I shot AKB. (AKB48, Japan’s best-selling pop group)


There’s an amazing film director called Hirokazu Kore-eda. He’s a person I really get along with.  Once I appeared ever so briefly in a film of his, Wonderful Life, and also did the still photography for it.
Last year, Kore-eda was directing a promotional video for the AKB song Sakura no ki ni narō, (I will turn into a cherry tree) and I did the filming. I was more than happy to. I don’t mind them at all actually.

Five or six members of AKB were in the clip. One was Atsuko Maeda, who quit the group recently. She’s not one to show her smile. She has more subtle, shadowy expressions, which make her suited to film and stage you see. And I got it in my head that I really just wanted to capture this girl’s beautiful smiling face. And I did; I can confidently say I captured her best shot. I would say that smile is the best from her whole career with AKB.

The story in this film clip is that one of their friends has died. And there’s a scene where the friend who died and Maeda are singing about the joys of their youth under a cherry tree that’s just shedding its blossom. I really wanted to make this scene, if no other, one that would remain in people’s memories. It was a brilliant scene.

-In contrast to the topic of your recent work, tell me about how things were forty or fifty years ago when you’d just started out as a photographer, in the 60s and 70s. Even looking back now, the culture from those days is so cool. It must have been such an exciting era in Tokyo, London and New York.

The important thing when you talk about that is the background of the era; the flow of generations. In the 50s, when I was a child, I watched a lot of American films. At first it was mostly westerns with John Wayne as the hero.  He’s a tough guy. That was an era when the father was the centre of the family.

From there, James Dean led the younger generation, and changed the whole era. Marlon Brando changed acting. And as for music, Elvis came out doing his pelvic thrusts and shocked all the PTA ladies.

 These guys were overwhelming heroes for my generation. That fact is in our roots. At the end of the 60s Andy Warhol changed art. American culture went from being paternalistic culture to youth culture, and the peak was Woodstock, 1969. In the UK it was the era of ‘swinging London’ and Twiggy.

I was looking on at all of this from the sidelines of Japan. People talked of counter culture, sub-culture, pop culture; there were all kinds of names. It was an era influenced by all this sophistication. Not just me, but all the artists around me in Japan too.

 A work from the 60s, also featured in SPEED OF LIFE.
Apparently it was when Bowie was impressed by this that he agreed to have Sukita photograph him.
“It looks like a Magritte, doesn’t it? With that sense of surrealism” said Sukita

-Having lived through that era, how does the current era appear in your eyes?

It’s not about good eras or bad eras. Whatever generation you grow up in, it’s about how you live your life. When you are born is destiny, but from there it’s up to you as an individual to look long and hard at yourself.

One thing I can say is that today, everything you need is available, and everything happens so fast. There might not be enough time to think, for today’s young people. There’s an information overload, and so many things you have to do.

In my generation, if you had one thing you liked, you’d think really big, get all caught up in the passion and sense of mission, and it was like you’d crack a whip to push yourself to work towards this dream. Perhaps people now are a bit too clever. I suppose that’s the kind of era we’re in.

-Finally, what do you want to photograph now?

To make a generalisation, it’s the people and scenes in front of me. I will still photograph Bowie. But not because of his fame. I was shooting him before he had made a name for himself, and I do it as a friend. And if you were to ask if I wanted to photograph other people who are famous like him…that’s not what it’s about. More than that, it’s when I see kids and adults in a scene right in front of my eyes, or a baby and a pram, that’s when I start snapping away. I’ve finally come to realise that that’s the kind of thing that’s important.

Once, I was in England to photograph Terry Jones, who used to be the art director of Vogue, and he said “Will you come to my place? You might be able to get some interesting shots”, so I gladly took up his invitation. His children were there, and I took photos of them together and so on. When we met up more than a decade later, he told me the same children I had photographed were now in high school. Things like that make me so happy.

I should also tell you about Tomoyasu Hotei, a well-regarded rock musician in Japan.

Apparently when he was a youngster, Hotei saw a poster of Marc Bolan at his local record store. It was my photo in the poster – the most famous shot I took of Bolan – he was holding his guitar, being blustered by the wind with an expression of ecstasy on his face. Hotei saw this, thought ‘how cool is that!’ and took up the guitar, so he tells me. He said he decided that when he turned forty himself, he would get the same cameraman to take the same kind of monochrome shot of him. The first time I heard this, we were on a talk show. That was pretty amazing, and made me feel happy too.

In this way, one era flows into the next, handed over like a baton touch.

Story: Noriko Tabei
Translation (Japanese to English): Anna Berry
 Interview cooperation: Consulate-General of Japan, Melbourne Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia


Bowie / Sukita: Changes – A Limited Edition Art Series
Until Saturday September 8th 2012. 
Mossgreen Gallery, 310 Toorak Road, South Yarra, 3141

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