Masayoshi Sukita is a Japanese photographer, renowned for his rock and roll images and his long and enduring friendship with David Bowie. As part of the research for my new book Silhouettes And Shadows, a deep dive into Bowie’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), I spoke to Sukita about the story behind his photographs that feature in the book.
Aside from being very photogenic — what do you think made Bowie so good to shoot?
He learnt his pantomime skills from Lindsay Kemp, so he knew how to move, how to best show himself – Bowie’s look was truly unique! Also he was a fan of old movies and I would guess he was influenced by them.
[Consider Bowie’s fandom of Lauren Bacall and Greta Garbo in the Hunky Dory album cover. And later, his admiration for Marlene Dietrich caused him to sign-on to co-star alongside her in 1978’s Just A Gigolo movie, only to shoot all of his scenes remotely in Berlin, with Dietrich in Paris!]
Bowie was a restless traveller – he once said he could order cigarettes in any language – he visited Kyoto a lot – what do you think was his interest in Japanese culture?
I think it’s because Japanese culture is very different from Western culture. There is a different philosophy, different history, and different people…it all must have been new and interesting for him.
In Kyoto 1980, you did a shoot with Bowie dressed like a businessman; wearing a suit and trenchcoat moving stiffly through the centre of a clock with only ten numbers on it, signifying there were never enough hours in the day. I wanted to ask what was your inspiration for shooting Bowie travelling around Kyoto and riding subway trains?
The day I shot him in Kyoto, I suggested him to do it in local ordinary places, not touristic places like temples or shrines as many western musician was doing. Travelling by train is one of those ideas. In Kyoto he drove himself with me in the backseat and took all of us to different places for shooting — he wanted shots from the everyday life of common people.
Where was this photo taken? It seems quite staged with Bowie in traditional Japanese dress; was the idea to show Bowie in a different context?
He asked me to take this photo in the morning, in a room of the Tawaraya ‘ryokan’ (traditional hotel) he was staying in. This is a part of our “loco life in Kyoto” concept. We spent the rest of that evening in a club, dancing wildly.
This is such an interesting shot – it’s from 1983 – and it shows Bowie at the height of his commercial success, healthy, blonde, very Eighties. Do you remember the context of the event? We’re of course talking Bowie’s lauded Lets Dance period and the ensuing fame that followed him; but here he looks expectant, pensive, perhaps caught outside of the moment, but also trapped within it?
This is from a press conference for the “Serious Moonlight Tour” in 1983. It looks a little bit funny, the gold walls behind him is usually used for Japanese celebrations as wedding.
In Duffy and Bell’s photography of Bowie as Pierrot we see the thwarted entertainer at half-light, exposing an actor caught at the critical moment between good and bad faith. This pose of outstretched hands would be memorialized in the construction of a mannequin for photography purposes by Masayoshi Sukita. I wondered how the mannequin body looked damaged/decayed – as you talked about in an interview – it was designed this way?
We didn’t get a lot of chances to shoot Bowie, because of the lack of time and the problem of distance. Then we came up with an idea to create a mannequin so that we could shoot his portraits anytime we wanted. He was so co-operative in its production. The idea of the doll is that the old skin is flaking off and a new self is reborn.
That image shows Bowie in all his physicality, no costumes, timeless, like a deity, an ‘unconventional’ being. It has never appeared in photos after the session (that’s just because I lost it somewhere!)
Do you have a favourite photo you took of Bowie – from everything you’ve done? Or perhaps just a favourite moment of your friendship together?
I have a lot of memories for each of the sessions we did. If I had to choose one, it should be “Heroes”. In 1977 David visited Japan with Iggy Pop for Iggy’s new album produced by Bowie. So I asked both of them to have a photo session in Tokyo.
I shot them 1 hour each in very nice and relaxing mood. Months later, one photo was used for “Heroes” and another one was used for Iggy’s album “Party”.
Each portrait I have made this way over 30 years is always a new and unique, timeless piece of work that I cherish.
I recommend the recent book Sukita On David Bowie – like the Duffy book it sets some of Bowie’s most iconic images in context – more info here
1980 — David Bowie stands at the crossroads of the decade where avant-garde pop, new wave and post-punk meet to confront the ghosts of his past and fear of the future.
With the Blitz Kids and the New Romantics emerging in his wake Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) bids farewell to Bowie’s golden years of the 1970s. Entering a world of paranoia, alienation, and state terror racing towards the end of history, Bowie faces up to brute realities of the emergent Eighties society and doomed romance of fading youth
This is David Bowie as pierrot clown of everyday romance, suffering and song — when the mask finally slips to reveal David Jones, the man within. Featuring exclusive interviews with close collaborators discussing the making of the album and hit singles “Fashion” and “Ashes To Ashes” Silhouettes And Shadows explores the songs, the times and the sounds of Bowie’s new decade.