The Man Behind Ziggy Stardust

In conversation with Masayoshi Sukita, on the occasion of #SukitaDays, a series of meetings and talks for the presentation of his exhibition Heroes – Bowie by Sukita at Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence. When we look back at David Bowie’s pictures, it is impossible not to refer to Masayoshi Sukita. The Japanese maestro, whose career spans …

In conversation with Masayoshi Sukita, on the occasion of #SukitaDays, a series of meetings and talks for the presentation of his exhibition Heroes – Bowie by Sukita at Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence.

When we look back at David Bowie’s pictures, it is impossible not to refer to Masayoshi Sukita. The Japanese maestro, whose career spans over 50 years, is, in fact, the author of some of the most memorable portraits of the great British artist.

Sukita’s love for photography started at a very early age. He received a camera as a present from his mother when he was a child.  She supported her son’s inclination, despite the lack of means of the family in post-war Japan. Since then, Masayoshi Sukita never stopped taking pictures and his work includes fashion images, landscape photography, collaborations with the cinema and the famous portraits of David Bowie and other musicians, such as Marc Bolan and Iggy Pop. Nowadays, Sukita’s mission is to share his David Bowie portraits all over the world. During his exhibition Heroes – Bowie by Sukita at Palazzo Medici Riccardi, we met the talented artist in Florence to talk about photography, different cultures, music, fashion, social networks, and, of course, David Bowie.

How would you describe your relationship with Western culture as a young child? What attracted you most about Western culture back then?

When I was a child, around 5 and 6 years old, Japan was at war (Second World War) and when I was 7,  the American army dropped the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. Those were intense memories, but they didn’t affect me dramatically, as I was very young.

When the war finally ended, American troops occupied Japan. Along with the soldiers, America brought its pop culture to the country. As a teenager, I loved to watch movies starring actors such as James Dean, Elvis Presley, and Marlon Brando. I was naturally drawn to American culture.

In the Seventies, I started developing a strong interest in subcultures. Therefore, I felt compelled to travel to New York to find out more about Andy Warhol and the artistic movement that he had started. I was attracted not only to photography but to all aspects of the cultural phenomenon created by Warhol and his Factory.

After visiting New York, I went to London to see T. Rex play live. That’s when I found out about David Bowie. I was a very curious young man. I didn’t stop at the surface – I wanted to deepen my knowledge of the lives and careers of the people I admired.

Heroes - Bowie by Sukita at Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence

And how do you find Western culture today?

Nowadays, I find it unbelievable how many western people are attracted to Japanese culture. Forty years ago, nobody showed any interest in Eastern traditions and Japan. I can only remember George Harrison’s interest in India and David Bowie’s passion for Kyoto. In a way, they were pioneers. My interest in subcultures met with David Bowie’s interest in Japan.

What struck you most about David Bowie the first time you met him?

The first time I arrived in London, I was shooting with Marc Bolan and T. Rex. I didn’t know who David Bowie was and I had no idea about his music. It was during that trip that I stumbled upon a poster of The Man Who Sold the World. I do not remember what day or what time it was, but it was then and there that I first saw the name David Bowie. That famous poster showed David Bowie with one leg raised in the air while playing the guitar. When I got back to the hotel, I asked someone at the reception if he could tell me something about this guy. Of course, the receptionist knew who he was. By that time, everyone in London knew who David Bowie was.

I managed to first meet and shoot David Bowie through the translator I was traveling around with at that time, who managed to arrange a meeting with Bowie’s manager. Bowie liked my portfolio and was eager to be photographed by me. He was fond of black and white images inspired by surrealist artist Magritte.

The first time I took pictures of David Bowie, I felt very relaxed. I was nine years older than him and I already had significant experience as a portrait and fashion photographer. It was later, after that first shooting, that my interest for David Bowie grew. I wanted to get to know him better. I was fascinated by the way Bowie expressed himself. He was no ordinary performer. He created a new world for himself that centered around a character from outer space and he was the alien star.

Did you stop shooting fashion images after the international recognition of your Bowie pictures?

The first pictures I took of David Bowie in the seventies became very successful and affected my career as a photographer. Many musicians started asking me for portraits, and so the fashion shooting became less frequent, although I never completely stopped working for fashion magazines.

Heroes - Bowie by Sukita at Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence

You took some of the most iconic pictures of musicians in the last 50 years. Do you think it is still possible to produce such memorable imagery now in the era of smartphones and social networks?

The mission of photography is to communicate. That’s the key concept that will never change.  Therefore, I think it is still possible to shoot beautiful pictures that we can relate with. All of us take photographs with smartphones. You can capture a great image with that device, too.

As a professional photographer, I believe that the importance of photography lies in its capacity to send a message to others. Dimensions matter in photography. The images you will find in this exhibition are all printed in a big format to easily reach people’s hearts. A professional photographer is responsible not only for the picture he or she takes but also for the way it is presented to the general public.

Since we’re on the topic of photographer responsibilities, I read that you once refused to send Bowie’s record company all of the pictures you took of him in Tokyo, picking only the ones you liked. Your favorite one turned into the famous cover of the Heroes album.

I will tell you what happened. Normally, when a musician has a record coming out, the record label asks a photographer to do a photo shooting and all the production expenses are paid by the record company. In the case of the picture that was chosen as the cover image of the album, the shooting was never commissioned. Bowie was in Japan with Iggy Pop, promoting the album The Idiot that he had produced. He wasn’t on tour so he had some free time.  I arranged a one-hour shoot with David Bowie and a one-hour shoot with Iggy Pop. I had no idea he was working on a new album. I sent my favorite images from that session to him in Berlin. When the record was complete, David Bowie decided he wanted to use an image from the Tokyo shooting for the cover. His record company contacted me, asking for all the photos I had taken and wanted to use them not only on the 33rpm but on the singles from Heroes and also to promote the album in general. I denied them authorization.

After the album was released featuring my favorite image on the cover, David Bowie came to Japan on tour. At one point, there was a meeting in a hotel in Tokyo between me, Bowie and some representatives from his record company. RCA wanted to use only my material for the promotion of Heroes, so they really insisted and there was a discussion. Voices got louder at a certain point and Bowie had to intervene to calm down the discussion. He sided with me, stating that only my approved images could be used.

I think that episode represented the crucial point in our collaboration. Although apparently negative, it established a relationship based on common trust.

I’m very grateful to David Bowie for having relied on me. He never asked to approve the images I took of him. I could always choose the photos I liked and he would never complain about my editing. I don’t speak English so there has never been verbal communication between us. We could communicate through mutual respect and through our art.

Heroes - Bowie by Sukita at Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence

Today, are there any other artists that you admire with whom you would like to work?

I’ve shot with Tomoyasu Hotei several times. He’s a very popular musician in Japan and now he lives in London. I met him when he was already famous and he told me about a strange coincidence that happened when he was still a student. He entered a shop to buy a Marc Bolan record and saw a poster that I shot of the British musician that impressed him a lot. Under the poster, there was a guitar that he decided to buy. From then, he started studying and became the respected guitar player that he is today.

What would you recommend to a young person that would like to pursue a career as a photographer?

My advice is to be curious. To become a good photographer, you need to nurture your own curiosity.

What do you miss about David Bowie? What impressed you most about him as an artist and as a human being? Are there any special memories that you would like to share with us?

I was impressed by the fact that David Bowie used the famous Heroes cover again for his recent album The Next Day. The image is partially covered by what looks like a white piece of paper. As we trusted each other, he didn’t ask me for permission for publication. Therefore, when the record was released, I had no idea what was happening.

As it was the first time that an artist was publishing the same image twice for different records, many journalists started calling me to get my reaction. By using the photo from his most famous album, I think David Bowie wanted to send a positive message to the world: no matter how glorious his past was, he did not want to stick to it; he was ready to live in the future. I kept this opinion for myself in order to avoid misunderstandings.

Another personal memory goes back to a David Bowie exhibition in Manhattan while he was already very ill, but I didn’t know and invited him to attend. He replied saying he was very busy recording his latest album and couldn’t attend and sent a message.

That was the last time I got in touch with him.

When I heard about his death, I felt blank for a week. Many important people were making statements to commemorate him. What helped me feel better was the message written on Twitter by the German government: “Goodbye, David Bowie. You are now among Heroes. Thank you for helping us bring down the wall”. That message moved me deeply.

David Bowie wasn’t just a musician, he had the power to change the world.

Heroes - Bowie by Sukita at Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence

You once said that your favorite photo ever was your first one depicting your own mother. Is there a picture you wanted to take but missed?

It is very difficult to reply to this question. There are so many people I wish I could’ve photographed, but I didn’t. I must also admit that my interests are constantly evolving. Now I’m 81. I recently went back to the South of Japan, where I’m originally from, to organize a few exhibitions of my work. Nature is luxuriant over there, so I started taking landscape pictures. I’m particularly interested in water. In Japan, we recently had a terrible tsunami that devastated entire areas and killed many people, so I started considering the different aspects of water. Water can be either terrifying and relaxing. I’m fascinated by its multiple aspects.

But the reason of my life at my age is to travel the world to show the photos I took of David Bowie to the many people who love him. I was lucky enough to work with him for many years and I want to keep his memory alive through my images.


In occasion of Heroes – Bowie by Sukita, Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence, March 30th – June 28th
Interview: Simona Melegari
#SUKITADAYS organization & promotion by OEO Firenze Art and Le Nozze di Figaro, in collaboration with Ono Arte Contemporanea, Città Metropolitana di Firenze, Comune di Firenze and Mus.e