Time to put Masayoshi Sukita in the limelight

by Stuart Munro

Special To The Japan Times

In the late 1970s, England was in the grips of a recession. Endless trade-union strikes led to power cuts, a “three-day” working week and streets engulfed in uncollected rubbish. What transpired was a massive cultural shift, with history and politics colliding with a youth movement that would go on to aggressively shape the country.

England adopted a newly creative and motivated generation and at the same time, suffering similar adversity, Japan’s youth became more opinionated, more adventurous and more expressive. Musicians and artists alike would inevitably collide. One such person caught up in this creative frenzy was a young Japanese photographer, Masayoshi Sukita.

Born in Fukuoka Prefecture, Sukita was 34 when he first photographed British musicians Marc Bolan and David Bowie, and he continued to photograph them and countless other artists for many years. “Sound and Vision” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography (Syabi) provides a window onto Sukita’s career, which stretches across more than 40 years, documenting his position as an important Japanese photographer while describing the width and breadth of his activities, both multifarious and international.

While his portraits, such as Bowie’s 1977 “Heroes” album cover, became iconic, Sukita’s sensitive eye for composition was in just as much demand by some extraordinary filmmakers, for whom he worked both as cameraman and stills photographer. One image on display shows the imposing figure of film director Shuji Terayama as he stares straight into the lens, taken during the filming of “Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets” (1971). This is surely Sukita’s greatest asset — the ability to capture his subjects as if in mid-performance when actually in quiet reflection.

The Syabi exhibition follows Sukita’s career — from the early Bowie photo sessions, the singer’s years in London and subsequent concerts in Japan, to myriad portraits that roll across the museum’s main space, his film work with Terayama, Paul Schrader, Jim Jarmusch and Hirokazu Koreeda, and his more recent black-and-white city-inspired photography. There are, however, two concurrent shows at smaller galleries that document more specific works: “SUKITAxBOWIE, Speed of Light” at the Paul Smith Space Gallery explores the friendship between the photographer and musician through images both formal and informal, while “Kirei” at Parco Museum simply brings together 73 of his more recognizable portraits.

Sukita himself is a quiet man who, dressed in a modest black suit, seemed a little out of place at the preview opening of “Sound and Vision” among the throng of celebrities, musicians and admirers. As someone that has documented the past 40 years so fervently, he can now afford to enjoy being in the same position as his subjects: as the centre of attention.

“Sound & Vision: Sukita Masayoshi Retrospective” at Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography runs till Sep 30, open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Thu, Fri till 8 p.m.). ¥800. Closed Mon. www.syabi.com. “Masayoshi Sukita: Kirei” at the Parco Museum runs till Sep 17, open 10 a.m.-9 p.m daily. ¥500. www.parco-art.com/web/museum.
“BOWIExSUKITA, Speed of Light” at the Paul Smith SPACE GALLERY, Tokyo, runs till Sep 30, open 12 p.m.-8 p.m. daily. Admission is free. www.paulsmith.co.jp/paul-smith-world/exhibitions.