‘The Shoot Must Go On’: Masayoshi Sukita captures some of rock music’s most iconic figures

by James Hadfield

Contributing Writer

Even if you don’t recognize the name, you probably know his shots. Photographer Masayoshi Sukita has captured images of rock gods and movie stars that deserve that most overused of epithets: iconic.

There’s Marc Bolan, face creased in orgasmic bliss and hair billowing behind him as he lunges towards the camera; a lipstick-smeared Masatoshi Nagase and Youki Kudoh, slumped against a hotel bed, on the set of Jim Jarmusch’s “Mystery Train”; the members of Yellow Magic Orchestra, sharing a table with a pair of mannequins on the cover of “Solid State Survivors.”

And then there’s David Bowie: lots and lots of Bowie. Sukita first captured the musician in London in 1972, at the peak of his Ziggy Stardust fame, and continued to photograph him for the next 35 years. His monochrome portrait on the cover of the 1977 “Heroes” album proved so indelible that Bowie was still referencing it decades later, even recreating the pose on Instagram, dressed as a member of Daft Punk.

In an introduction to Sukita’s 2011 collection, “Speed of Life,” Bowie wrote: “Whenever he’s asked me to do a session I conjure up in my mind’s eye the sweet, creative and big-hearted man who has always made these potentially tedious affairs so relaxed and painless. May he click into eternity.”

After nearly 60 years in the business, “eternity” is starting to sound just about right. But though Sukita has worked with some massive stars, and become a major name in his own right, he says he still prefers to meet his subjects as equals.

“I don’t like it when the relationship is like this,” he says, raising one hand above the other to indicate that the photographer is superior to the subject. He draws his hands level, and continues: “This is always my attitude. I’ll forget about my career, about shooting David Bowie: at that moment, the most important thing is always how I’m going to photograph this person.”

Sukita has had plenty of opportunity to reflect on his life’s work recently. The past few years have seen a flurry of retrospective shows, not just in Japan but also in France, Italy, Australia and the United Kingdom. Now the photographer, who celebrated his 80th birthday earlier this month, is the subject of a feature-length documentary.

Directed by music industry veteran Hiromi Aihara, “Sukita: The Shoot Must Go On” follows its amiable subject as he exhibits his Bowie shots in the U.S. for the first time, and catches up with a host of old acquaintances, ranging from Japanese music royalty (Tomoyasu Hotei, the members of YMO) to British fashion designer Paul Smith.

There are additional interviews with an assorted cast of figures from throughout his career, including Nagase, Jarmusch and fashion stylist Yacco Takahashi.

It’s not just a nostalgia fest, either: Sukita is also seen working in the studio with present-day guitar hero Miyavi, though their meeting didn’t go quite as planned. After waking up with a fever on the day of the shoot, the photographer had to spend several hours in hospital while his crew anxiously prepared for his arrival. Nevertheless, he proudly recalls that he managed to finish the job on schedule.

“I’ve been doing this for decades now, so I know how long it’s going to take,” he says. “I’ll cut all the extraneous time: There’s no time for coffee!”

Despite all the high-profile assignments he’s worked on over the years, Sukita’s most cherished photograph is a portrait he took of his mother in 1956, using the Ricohflex camera that she’d bought him. And when asked about the secret of good portraiture, he refers not to one of his more famous sessions, but to his first paid job, working for photographer Shisui Tanahashi in Osaka in the early 1960s.

“A young woman who lived nearby — she must have been about 20 years old — came to the studio,” Sukita recalls. “You know what omiai (formal matchmaking) is? In Japan in the past, people didn’t marry for love, but because their parents had decided for them. This woman needed her photo taken for that, and my boss got me to handle it — which I did — and she was able to get married as a result. So my first photo session was a happy one.”

This may just sound like a pleasant anecdote, but Sukita says it had a deeper meaning for him. As he moved on to work at a major advertising agency and started to rise within the industry, he says his memory of this early portrait job kept him grounded.

“Even when I’m doing a big shoot, I’ll always come back to that first photo session,” he says. “That photo helped the woman find a husband, and apparently things worked out well, so it was probably a big step forward in her life. I can’t ever forget that experience. I think it’s what gives me strength when I’m taking portraits.”

The defining photo of Sukita’s career was captured in 1977, during an impromptu session in Tokyo with his favorite subject.

“Whenever (Bowie) came to Japan, it was always in the middle of a world tour,” Sukita says. “But in 1977, he came here to do promotion with Iggy Pop, as his producer, and he was so relaxed. When he was here on tour, he had to act as the leader and go to all kinds of meetings, so I knew we wouldn’t have time for a photo session — I’d only ever get to photograph him up on stage.”

Sensing an opportunity, Sukita suggested doing a portrait session, and was told that both Bowie and Pop would be available the following day.

“In Tokyo, you’re not going to be able to find a studio with only a day’s notice,” he continues. “A photographer friend of mine had a studio that wasn’t really big enough for portraits, but it was available, so we all squeezed in and did it there.”

Sukita had spent part of that year in London, shooting street snaps of the punks who congregated around Vivienne Westwood’s boutique on King’s Road. The times were changing, and he recalls that Bowie was taking note: his low-key garb on the day of the shoot was a far cry from the flamboyant Kansai Yamamoto outfits that he’d worn only a few years earlier.

“I got a sense that on some level, he was conscious of that whole youth movement,” Sukita says.

He shot Bowie and Pop for an hour each, and both artists would end up using photos from the sessions for their albums. But while the Sukita image adorning Pop’s “Party” was forgotten as quickly as the record itself, his picture of Bowie, mimicking a pose from an Erich Heckel painting, has endured.

“When I do media interviews in Japan, in more than half of the cases, that’s the only photo of mine that they use,” he says.

In the course of the documentary, Phil Alexander, editor-in-chief of British music magazine Mojo, tells Sukita that other Bowie photographs can’t compete with his: “They’re not like yours — they’re not real.”

But after all these years, the man himself is aware of his limitations.

“No matter what you do, you can’t capture music in a photo!” he declares. “You might feel like you can hear the music when you’re taking pictures of a musician, but it’s not the same thing.”

“Sukita: The Shoot Must Go On” (“Sukita: Kizamareta Atisutotachi no Isshun”) is released in Japan on May 19. For more information, visit www.sukita-movie.com.