7 December 2023


Bruno Ehrs, Sturebadet. July 19, 1986 (from The Stockholm Suite). © Bruno Ehrs.

It is surprising what beauty can offer when you are trying to create the images with a kind of awareness.


– Bruno Ehrs


A boy is running across a flowery meadow on a cloudless day – blissful, freckled, radiant, captured by the wonderment of life. The camera starts to pan his face in profile as the youngster rises to the sky in a burst of laughter. “Mama, there’s a cuckoo in the woods,” he says when he touches down by the river next to her. Mama wipes the sweat off her forehead and smiles at the sight of her son plunging the face in her bucket of water to drink. She is dead of course. The boy and the viewers are thrown out of the dream and hurled into a world at war. It’s nighttime for the star.


What was meant as a singular thoroughgoing afternoon interview with the affable Swedish photographer Bruno Ehrs (then half reclining on my sofa due to back problems after a life of carrying camera equipment the size of Atget’s) on matters such as the elevated quality of his image-making, the emergence of his own designed daylight studio (in the country’s largest island Gotland) and his “ninth-and-a-half” exhibition evolved into a ten-hour-long course of conversations about his all-encompassing fondness for the photographic medium – and this is what he shows me on his mobile across the table with refreshments in the café at Fotografiska in Stockholm, and it is late September: Tarkovsky’s perfect opening scene in Ivan’s Childhood (1962).


“I want my images to be a bit like an ABC book,” Ehrs (b 1953) explains, “that it should be completely obvious as to why the photographer has placed the tripod exactly there, and if things are going very well the pictures shall also pick up sustenance from the subconscious. And there mustn’t be any doubt because with my aesthetics I want to guide the viewer into what I find so mysterious and exciting. Therefore, I try to create my pictures with great simplicity. The word ‘simple’ is misleading because life is in chaos, everywhere, and how can you make a simple picture? It is really difficult. I don’t want to photograph life as it looks, but I photograph it as I want it to look.”


There is a quote by Alfonso X of Castile (the 1200s) – “If I had been present at the Creation, I would have given some useful hints for the better arrangement of the Universe” – among the sheets of questions and they all remain unlooked at, although answered in depth since Ehrs’s unusual perceptiveness makes him a pleasure to record. Master filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville talked about the necessity for an artist to be “opocentric” (a word he made up, yes), which for certain is the kind of determination you see in Bruno Ehrs’s work as he has devoted himself to the spirit of photography and the kind of vigilance that goes all through his opus.


The day before the opening of Bruno Ehrs and Tom Wolgers: Stockholm – Pieces of a City, Fotografiska’s gallery below is a muddle of ladders, tools, workbenches, some glass-covered prints spread out on the floor, and technicians running about with their settled duties. And this is a type of chaos that actually beguiles Ehrs, massively. Especially so when the first speaker is plugged in with his treasured old chum Tom Wolgers’s (1959–2020) music which he composed for their twin collaborations in the 1980s – Stockholmsutställningen 1982 (The Stockholm Exhibition 1982) and Stockholmssviten (The Stockholm Suite) in 1987 – and which have been brought back for the first time as an intermingling twofer that is a treat for one’s eyes and ears.


“I am back to the key element in my photography, a theory that has followed me all my life – that I have a mood, a feeling within me. I want to convey that emotion to others, and how do I manage to express in pictures what is sensed in my whole body?” Ehrs reflects. “My wish, when my photography is at its best, is that I will be able to create an image with a mood that can be shared by the viewer. It is by then that I have succeeded. And this is how it is with my Stockholm pictures at Fotografiska. I hope that my pictures will move the visitor into that state of mind.”


“Many believe that Tom Wolgers and my first exhibition in 1982 was one of the clearest signs that a new type of photography was on the way. There are simply two main things in this: one is the one that I naturally think is great fun because it was the first time in Swedish photo history that a photographer collaborated with someone from another discipline. And we had no idea, Tom and I, but we just wanted to do it. The second is that this exhibition is an early indication that the then-dominant documentary photography breed, usually left-leaning, had to step aside. And that was what was so provocative. I think that people were unprepared for it and that they didn’t understand it. I also know that people who had opinions on my pictures never saw the exhibition.”


Edward Hopper, an artist who Ehrs reveres, was at one time asked by a boring man what he was after. These kinds of questions often produce the best ever replies and Hopper’s was: “I’m after me.” It’s no secret that Bruno Ehrs always has been after “me”, which is the grand opposite of trying to be popular and uninspiring, and this is why the vapidity of DDR-Sweden and the adherents of hollow social realism – who maintained that putting a photograph in a frame was “bourgeois” – would finally crash and burn along with their disregard for human flourishing.


One of the victories at Fotograficentrum, where The Stockholm Exhibition 1982 was on show from late November to late December that year, was that the nation’s Museum of Modern Art, Moderna, purchased eight of these prints from the gallery. But the largest one is by all means the quality of these portraits of Folkhemmet’s prettiest stars, the (sort of) New Romantics of Stockholm, pictures of dream and poetry that will surely never fade to grey.


Drottninggatan (Queen Street) is the artery in Ehrs’s early life as a professional photographer. Across the street just slightly to the right from Drottninggatan 86, where he lived and had a studio, was a clever waterhole called Bistro Bohème (that somewhat remained its fumbling Swedishness by the incorrect accent aigu spelling) where Gucci rhymed with Fiorucci and the angulate pastel furnishings were a combination of 1920s Constructivism and 1980s Memphis Group. Though Ehrs didn’t really socialise with Bistro Bohème’s clientele, he liked these people a lot and was fascinated by their looks. He asked one after the other if he could photograph them the next day at one o’clock, often on a Saturday or Sunday, and always in exactly the same attire as the night before.


“Bistro Bohème was immense fun. It was completely crazy because it was a Belgian architect called Guy Monseau who did the whole interior. It was extremely postmodern with tall wooden chairs that were impossible to sit on, but they put you in a good mood. The chairs were light green or light purple or light blue in that novel postmodernist style. Bohème was a bit odd, new and different. I lived alone and couldn’t cook so I ate their business lunch there every day. In the evenings it was a little more complicated because I could never afford to both drink and dine, and for the most part I only had beer.”


Georg Christoph Lichtenberg contended in his late-1700s Waste Books that “For us the most entertaining surface in the world is that of the human face” and he is eternally right. For each individual in Ehrs’s series of portraits, made with a 35mm camera and a roll of film, there was a new location that he had opted for in advance, on Drottninggatan or close by, to perfectly frame the notion that he had about this person. Ehrs says that he longed to photograph these people, “but at the same time I didn’t want to know anything about them, perhaps for fear that they were not what I hoped. I think that I can say that I have such sensitive tentacles so for me that is enough.”


The photographer was only twenty-nine at the time when he made these pictures that are so strikingly appealing in tone and style – yet full of conscious photo law don’ts, like a drainpipe coming out of a young man’s head or the one where the parking meters are voguing in front of another guy just to steal the attention. (“I use that aesthetics as something positive to enhance the mood of presence and present time.”) A precious picture in this series, that consists of fourteen prints at Fotografiska, is the portrait of Cecilia (Cecilia, Student, Drottninggatan 86) in a chequered dress and a thoughtful disposition, sided by an almost robotlike and street-rough control panel and a human ink blot, the shadow of Ehrs’s assistant. A photographer draws by definition with light, but a really great one similarly knows what to do with the shadows. Ehrs treats them like tangible delights.


Also from Drottninggatan 86 is the portrait of Madeleine in which the contrasty drama of light and shade on her face creates a captivating penumbra. Madeleine Thor, who worked at Stockholm’s first Italian ice cream parlour Pacific and at the dashing clothes store Gul & Blå after school, describes Bistro Bohème as “a second living room for everyone when we were young and hadn’t moved out from our parents or lived in small flats”. As for the portrait, she was used to stand in front of the camera for tests and lights since she assisted a commercial photographer at the time: “I’m sensitive to light, I was born with sunglasses, so the streak of light over my eye meant that I had to close my eyes to open them when Bruno told me.” Fotografiska has a blow-up of this portrait so enormous that the lady in the picture initially failed to notice it when she arrived at the vernissage.


British photographer Eric de Maré argues in his book Architectural Photography that “photography is unlike any other creative medium, and it is particularly potent when dealing with architecture because through selection to make firm compositions by judicious choice of viewpoint, of lighting, and of lens of particular focal length, and in processing and printing, it can make personal comment – most often by isolating a detail from its surroundings and building a disciplined structure on its own right within the frame. The camera can select significant, organised form from the general chaos of the world, and in black and white it can formalise reality in a range of tones between black and white that creates a kind of abstract.”


There is art in Bruno Ehrs’s version of architectural photography made in the mid-1980s so there is likewise personal comment, and more of those fine things that de Maré is talking about in the thirty-nine other pictures at Fotografiska – and for the second time Ehrs and Tom Wolgers developed a piece together for ears and eyes on the basis of Stockholm in a different light. “My relationship with Stockholm is really strong. I sometimes think to myself that I am a hometown photographer,” says Ehrs who has been all over the world in his profession. “There has always been a great interest in Stockholm in my life. I am still taken by Stockholm and I always have thoughts in my head about documentations that I would like to make.”


One such documentation was The Stockholm Suite which premiered at the Moderna in 1987. Its guiding idea is described as “a celebration of the vacant Sunday city when everyone you know seems to be somewhere else”. Ehrs tells that “In the portraits for The Stockholm Exhibition 1982 I chose the city’s objects as a photographic backdrop. I was driven by the idea that the city served as an unconscious designer of the portraits’ settings, in all its brutal simplicity and beauty. For The Stockholm Suite I wanted to depict the modern city with as much clarity and distinctness as possible, far off from romantic sentimentality.” Both of these series are monochrome – because as Ehrs states, “The magic of black and white photography is that reality is in colour.”


Bruno Ehrs loves the tactility of a print that originates from a large-format camera negative. The Stockholm Suite was made with a Linhof Technika IV with a Rodenstock lens and 9 x 12 sheet film, “and you can make tilt–shift restitutions so that the lines turn parallel. But it is also complicated because when you look at the ground glass, the image is upside down and mirrored, so it is incredibly difficult to work with these cameras, you have to redo the image in your head,” he explains.


“The Moderna exhibition was meant to be on display for one month but was extended over the summer, four months. It was a dramatically different reception, and we had become more mature. Tom himself has told me that The Stockholm Suite is the best single work that he has done, while he thought the music for The Stockholm Exhibition was a bit childish and ill-conceived. A lot had happened during these years, photography had also changed a lot. The aggressive tone against doing something different was no longer there at all.” The 1970s had to end at some point, even in Sweden.


Wolgers’s contribution to The Stockholm Suite consists of rearranged sound recordings of the disconcerted harmonies of the city – metro sounds, water sounds, motorway sounds, and so on and so forth – that are wholly melded with his predominant synthesiser compositions which form a classic sonic atmosphere, with structures assumed from both French Impressionism and 1980s art music. (His two works with Ehrs have just been rereleased on a double CD.) The musician and the photographer met at a party at Gärdet in Stockholm in the spring of 1982, they had similar preferences and loved the same kinds of artists and music (like the Coltrane-y side of jazz), and became the closest of friends till Ehrs’s first son was born in 1986.


“The thing is that I was so fond of my family that when Tom and I were out together, I was looking at the watch and longed to go home. As intensely as we had socialised, just as intensely did we not socialise anymore. I absolutely do not regret that decision, but I wished that he could have understood the situation better.” By then a third collaboration, that would have concluded their trilogy on Stockholm, was in the making. This involved a circumstance on the greensward by the Maritime Museum with a string quartet performing a purely classical piece by Wolgers to an Ehrs slideshow projected on a giant screen. “That show would have been about the city’s signs and symbols, the city’s nature morte. I never got around to make a single picture for it.”


“I don’t take pictures, I make pictures, and that is a huge difference. A skilled press photographer sees things that are about to happen, and when they happen, he is there to take the picture in action. That photographer is not me, but I have an inner image and I physically feel it in my whole body when I achieve it. And then I do not need to take another picture. I feel like an athlete who is about to run two hundred metres, and then I have to put everything aside that has to do with ordinary life. I want to be reset and empty before a new task. My wife has many times said that when I put the tripod down, I change and become a different person. I have learned this self-discipline. In large productions, all one hundred and fifty pictures must be good, and that nurtures you in some way. And I have benefitted from this discipline, that I decide on an order, when I do my own art projects.”


Three hundred pictures in all were made for The Stockholm Suite. This series is pensive too but in another way from The Stockholm Exhibition 1982 since it’s practically void of people. The Suite is a meditation on the somnambulistic city in its Sunday robe, entangled in the geometry of surfaces, shapes and proportions, the stuff that so much amuse him. The Suite is near in mood of being in a foreign land, a bit like an old tumbleweed Western with the Americana stripped off, or the ending in Antonioni’s L’eclisse (1962) in which a desolate suburban part of Roma is what it is, yet not at all with the director’s mysterious and poetical montage of images. Ehrs says that the great thing about photography “is that you do the impossible. Photography can stop time and at that particular moment it actually looked that way.”


There are pictures at Fotografiska that show some evidence of human life, like the vast parking garage with no cars but some tyre tracks in the snow; or the shadowy essence of a figure who is walking by an Alfa Romeo Spider and behind is a humongous wall, a backdrop of rough-textured bricks with a bit of the dreamy raggedness of Neorealismo; or the two he-and-she doors, marked “Private” and “Ladies”, that are having a hushed conversation in a defunct nightclub for art. Or the one where an apparition is walking straight into the picture when the photographer is assumed to be capturing the Berlin Wall-y backside of Kulturhuset (the House of Culture) which has produced a particular outcome that is strange, beautiful, out of the common and contrary to regulations.


An empty street, a traffic sign on a refuge, the huge corner surfaces of a building and the Hopperesque shadows – that is Klara Östra Kyrkogata. August 28, 1985, and as Ehrs was standing there to make his Sunday picture (on a day that was in fact a Wednesday) “this guy appeared and stood guard. He looked at me and then he saw what I was doing. I took the picture and waved at him. He waved back, then left with his plastic bags with strong beer.”


A gem in this series is a picture with a lot of dissimilar elements, like the deserted trolley cart that casts its shadow on an empty board for newspaper placards where someone has spraypainted “Trousers, Skirt, Trousers, Skirt, Trousers”, and this thing is just a bedlam of nothingness and all the same a symphony of significance composed of things considered ugly and boring and not worthy of consideration. This picture is implicitly anchored in the pure-natured photography of the 1920s and 30s.


“Without [Albert] Renger-Patzsch, I would never have experienced this. After all, he first published a book that has the best name in the world – Die Welt ist schön [1928] – meaning, the world is beautiful. You cannot beat that drama,” explains Ehrs who is an avid collector of vintage photobooks. “This I have come across many times when I have made photographs that I only later, and never when I am fully engaged in the photography, can sense that I probably never would have made that picture if I hadn’t looked at those photographs or the paintings that I admire so much.”


“There is something tender about sitting with a book in one’s arms and the photobook is like an exhibition, however in a slightly smaller format. If you are interested in form, printing and typefaces, browsing through a photobook is a great journey. I have been having fun trying to get hold of some of these old valuable books from the Weimar period in particular. I have two first editions of [Karl] Blossfeldt and I even like the way they smell. The book is like a kind of company, or like a mood carrier,” Ehrs maintains.


“I regard these photographers, my heroes, a bit like the angels in Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire [1987] who circumambulate despite that we humans cannot see them. On occasions when you are pondering, are sad, think about something, the angel comes and sits next to you and puts his arm around you, and all of a sudden you feel much better. And for this reason, I believe that these people that I have come to know through these beautiful books have deeply ingrained me, to help me. They are my friends. It is just that they do not know it.”


Pretty miraculously Bruno Ehrs has managed to repossess his first camera, a Canon FT QL, that he bought during a summer school holiday before a trip to Sunny Beach in Bulgaria with his big sister. When the young Ehrs had made this purchase in the city, he just couldn’t contain himself on his way back home to Årsta (in the southern part of Stockholm) so he got off his bicycle after a few hundred metres, sat down under a statue in Kungsträdgården (the King’s Garden), rejoiced in the scents of his new tool, set the shutter speed to a second and listened to the sound of the exposure time over and over again. And he thought to himself that this is life.


“In order to succeed as a photographer and make images that have meaning, you must possess a combination of being an artist and being an engineer. I know truly great artists, they have all embraced the artistic position, but they cannot photograph. The common thread is that most photographers are technically interested,” Ehrs implies. “I never became a photographer to experience the world, I became one because I had an interest in photography. I am constantly longing to make a really good picture, that is my journey.”


To be an excited young man with a camera was one thing, however becoming a photographer was not Ehrs’s first choice when he was still in school. He applied to the School of Journalism in Stockholm, not to become a journalist but some kind of writer, but didn’t pass the tests. His father, who was an engineer, had a Voigtländer camera. In his early teens Ehrs biked to the Klara quarters with his pals to photograph the brutally scarred midtown on Sundays, which was the day of the week when they could roam freely amongst the boy-world remnants of old Stockholm. Ehrs got a Durst 301 enlarger and set up a darkroom in a boxroom in the basement of the apartment building. But it took some time for him to understand that it is only the coated side of the photo paper that is receptive to light.


Something substantial happened to Ehrs when his father’s highly religious relatives from up north gave them a book titled Bilder av Nådens barn (Pictures of the Children of Grace, 1963) “which is no comedy, but it meant a lot to me. We had mostly technical books at home, and all those pictures were comprehensible, but when I was holding Sune Jonsson’s photobook I didn’t understand the story of the pictures. It was the first time that it occurred to me that there was a kind of beauty and delight in the incomprehensible. And the same thing happened when I saw Christer Strömholm’s book Poste restante [1967]. I remember sitting on the floor by the photo shelf in Årsta Library and being almost obsessively shocked by the incomprehensibility of the images – you felt something that gripped your insides, but it was impossible to analyse as a boy. Both books were probably decisive for me becoming a photographer.”


There was a new assignment every week at the photo school in Solna (Stockholm). Since the student Ehrs’s dedication to photography was somewhat overenthusiastic and (in his own description) pretty juvenile, he always seemed to do more than was asked for but not quite what his teachers requested. One icy spring he travelled as far as he could go in the Stockholm archipelago with his Rolleiflex and ten rolls of film. After he had collected the developed rolls in a brown box from a photo shop, Ehrs was sitting on the metro one day looking through the slides with the aid of the lights in the carriage.


Facing him was a charming man dressed in a worn lambswool sweater, a Harris Tweed blazer and a knitted bow tie. “And he seemed so kind and smiled so much at me. When I looked up, he looked at me, and I said, ‘Do you want to have a look?’ When we reached the Old Town, he suddenly asked, ‘Are you a photographer?’ ‘No, I’m in photo school.’ ‘Do you want to become a photographer?’ ‘I want nothing more,’ I said.” The gentleman was none other than the famous Stockholm photographer Lennart af Petersens who was in charge of the photo department at the Stockholm City Museum.


Ehrs was hired that summer as a repro photographer, a job that was marked by its everyday sameness – both because of the procedure of the task and that he didn’t like the mediocre quality of the pictures that needed to be duplicated. But then there started to appear some pictures “with an entirely different shimmer, an entirely different light, an entirely different aura”. The author of this decidedly particular work is Henry B Goodwin who turned photography into an accepted artform in Sweden, via Pictorialism. Ehrs has a handsome collection of Goodwin prints and has made two books and an exhibition about this peculiar go-getter from Munich who nearly became a professor at Oxford.


In 1978, Ehrs received a phone call from a man who had just seen his Solna Library exhibition of the roundhouses in that part of town. Lars Peder Hedberg was a creative whose objective was a desire to infuse Stockholm with a metropolitan sense of the world and Ehrs was recruited for the launch of a truly impressive magazine, Sthlm City, even if his engagement would be limited to doing basic photo jobs. “But I ended up in an editorial office where the phones were ringing and where there were large Hans Gedda prints on the talented art director Tom Hedqvist’s desk. The owners shut down the magazine after four months, however, and then I got a little sick to my stomach because this was not what I had hoped for. It then turned out that the cleaning lady and I were the only ones with permanent employment.”


By the end of the first week as a fully-salaried unemployed, Ehrs received another important call from an editor at the girlie glitz magazine Veckorevyn who had mistaken Hans Gedda’s Sthlm City work for being his, and she asked Ehrs to fly to Paris the next day. “So we went to Paris and I was so damn lucky because I had some model friends, and when we got there we were invited to the opening of a disco called Les Bains Douches and it was Paris’s Studio 54 at the time.”


“When I came back to Stockholm, the editor-in-chief told me that she had never heard of a photographer and journalist returning with ten features in a week. She wanted to hire me on a contract, and it paid twice as much as the last job – and it was the same employer! Being a photographer at Veckorevyn with their slightly silly coverage was not quite what I had in mind, but the circumstances made me a bit fond of the free food, the parties and the pretty girls. Well, I was at that age.”


That kind of party ended when the Bonnier Publishing Group brought in their noted-switch-notorious mender to save the magazine; a Gertrude Stein-like woman of a seriously frightening disposition, “and let me put it this way: she had more male sex hormones than I do. She was like an attacking eagle and I was not the slightest cocky at that point. She kindly asked if I wanted a cup of coffee, and I thought to myself that this is going to be bad.” Her message was that the next thing that Ehrs was expected to do was to go straight to the elevator, press “G” and not ever again enter the building. “It was then that I decided to never be employed again in my life. It was 1981 and that is how it happened.” Many years later they met by chance in the café when Fotografiska had opened in Stockholm. This time it was friendly and Ehrs thanked her for saving his life.


In 1979, Ehrs shot Andy Warhol. He was going to New York together with a famous man of culture to cover a host of people of renown in the city, but was promptly left to his own devices. Luckily Leo Castelli found the “cute Norwegian boy” to his liking so Ehrs got his pass to Warhol and the Union Square Factory, and also went on a cruise one night in Warhol’s limousine to places like Studio 54 where small glasses of sponsored Absolut Vodka were served up during every fifteen-minute stop they made. The white t-shirt that Warhol had written his phone number on and “Call me” was obliterated one day when Ehrs’s mother decided to put it in the washer. And later on, there was a big eruption of soup inside his camera cabinet when one of the signed Campbell’s cans had soured up. But who needs souvenirs with these kinds of memories?


That feature was for the abovementioned publishing house’s new crown jewel Månadsjournalen, and this was the fecund era when Ehrs started to collaborate with some of Sweden’s best writers – especially the legendary Bobo Karlsson who had co-founded Sthlm City and who was so fed up with Sweden that he relocated to New York. Ehrs says that besides his own family, there’s no one who has taught him as much about how to act as a photographer as Bobo Karlsson. New York was ever so often Ehrs’s second city during that period. He describes NYC in the early 1980s as a really chaotic, littered and dangerous place, “but at the same time noisy and fun, and people danced like never before with an exuberance that would abruptly end with the emergence of Aids”.


“The best thing that can happen to me is when someone opens a magazine and says that Bruno must have done this,” Ehrs rejoices. One thing that sets his pictures apart is how he deals with proportions. He also turns every picture that he makes nowadays into 4:5, regardless. “And this is very interesting: you kind of make different pictures with different proportions. The most complicated is the square format. It was never intended by Hasselblad that one should make square images, but Victor Hasselblad photographed birds and the whole idea was to focus it on the centre cross and press. A print in portrait or landscape mode is then made in the darkroom. If you try to create images in the square format, it is extremely complicated because the motifs have a tendency to fall if you are not skilled with your composition.”


He loved the transition to digital photography in the late 1990s and claims that it was one of his greatest experiences since his photo school days. At that time, and for the next twenty years, Ehrs brought quality and art to the world of business. “The advertising jobs were what funded my private projects, so I went into self-sponsorship. It is of course a different type of visual language that exists in the advertising world, and I also like it very much. What I had never understood in my early years as a photographer was that if you are lucky, you can make huge amounts of money.”


“I saw photography as a low-paying profession. Suddenly it was the opposite with advertising: you made too much money. I also got an agent. Another interesting thing is that I joined an image agency early on. By then I had so many pictures from destinations. But I have never been out to rake it in, the drive has always been to make really great photography. I kind of want to make pictures that I myself would like to see.”


The National Library of Sweden lists 143 books with Bruno Ehrs’s name. Since 2014, he has photographed nine impressive tomes of opulence for Flammarion: three luxury brands, four French châteaus and two Italian villas. Other commissioned works of note are his photographs in the book on Dior’s Château de La Colle Noir in the southeast of France and the one on Cartier’s jewellery.


Before Stockholm turned 750 years old in 2002, Ehrs received an invitation from Kulturhuset to photograph the Stockholmer. He got the idea for The Embracement one day when his youngest son fell asleep with a smile on his face on the metro – that special existential luxury of resting one’s head so placidly on a parent’s shoulder. The series shows famous Stockholmers at rest in the bosom of the city, and the most famous of them all relaxes on the stairs on the Skeppsholmen island opposite the Royal Castle. Just when Ehrs had loaded his camera with the sixth 8 x 10 cassette, a white swan pedalled past the King of Sweden to make the whole arrangement picture perfect.


As Joseph W Molitor accurately writes in his book Architectural Photography, “Ideas are what lift a picture from a mere record to an exciting illustration. Ideas come to those whose daily custom it is to generate them, for man’s imagination runs best when in constant use. One might think that the photographer’s equipment consists of cameras, films, lights, and lenses. In reality a photographer’s major tool is his ability to use such hardware in imaginative ways.”


“I am not a photographer who walks around with a camera to capture the present moment,” Ehrs explains. “No matter how difficult it is to photograph, no matter how difficult it is to make the pictures that you want to make, the tone is the hardest thing to establish. I often figure that out when I am lying in the bathtub because then all the pain disappears. It is about an occupational injury to my back because I have worn out my body. When I arrive at this tone everything is very loose, then when I start shooting, I stick to the theme that I think that I have originated from the beginning.”


One of Bruno Ehrs’s favourite photographers is Keld Helmer-Petersen, the Danish maestro of colour (but also of extracting graphical forms from a world concealed to those with eyes wide shut), and Ehrs and his wife had the great pleasure to travel to Copenhagen one weekend to meet the old master in his home. Helmer-Petersen’s guiding quote came from Paul Éluard – “There is another world, but it is in this one” (or in beautiful French: Il y a assurément un autre monde, mais il est dans celui-ci) – and this is surely a valid viewpoint for Ehrs and his work as well.


(Just make sure to revisit the other jocund dream scene in Ivan’s Childhood, the one with the boy and his sister on a flatbed truck full of apples in the rain against a film negative background, and all the fruits gushing out on the river bank for the horses to savour.)


When asked if he’s sure that the ideas behind his almost-there daylight studio in an old outhouse in Gotland (situated beside his other house on the northern part of the island) are going to work, Ehrs replies, “No, I am not.” He says that Gotland was a love at first sight. “My whole family comes from northern Jämtland. It is a terrible landscape. It is beautiful in a sense but it is incredibly dismal with big black lakes and spruce forests. Gotland is an abundance of beauty, history and culture. The light is so special because there are no mountains or tall trees; the sky is so present in a way that is second to none in Sweden. And the island is a limestone cliff so the white limestone lights up. In autumn, the sun has heated up this entire rock so autumn in Gotland is warmer than it is on the mainland.”


He found his dream outhouse in the woods, returned to it a number of times during his and his spouse’s many bicycle tours, then bought it from the farmer who butchered its corners with a chainsaw in order to load it on a vehicle for a hardly legitimate move. “The farmer wanted to hit the main road and the house was so wide that oncoming cars could not pass. A car drove into the ditch but it was no worse than it was back on the road again. At one point we had an approach with Bus 61 and the driver had to reverse it into another road for us to pass, and people filmed us. On one occasion, a telephone line crossed the road and the farmer had to climb atop of the roof and push the line with a broom. Then the farmer and his son started arguing when they were going to lower the house onto the newly-laid foundation, and the whole house started to creak and sway.”


Another Danish artist that Bruno Ehrs is much fascinated by is the fantastic painter Vilhelm Hammershøi who, in Ehrs’s words, “has the black belt in empty rooms” and the restful Sunday mood that he so much values. There is a building in Gotland that hasn’t been in use for a hundred years called the Chapel of the Hjorterians, and that was a rare visit that reminded Ehrs of both Hammershøi and his own anticipation of creating a daylight studio.


The repurposed old outhouse has been furnished with a big window facing the northern light that is so favoured by Ehrs. The inner walls are painted in the darkest of greys and everything that might disturb the peace is placed in dark grey boxes. In this space of thirty-two square metres of serenity and creativity, Ehrs will make still lives that might possibly enter the excitement of diptychs and triptychs because there are future exhibitions ahead. The sole picture in here is a portrait of Yvonne, his wife.


It’s daytime for the photographer.

Bruno Ehrs, Club Barbar. October 1985 (from The Stockholm Suite). © Bruno Ehrs.

Bruno Ehrs, Unknown. Barnhusgatan 1982 (from The Stockholm Exhibition 1982). © Bruno Ehrs.
Bruno Ehrs, Tunnelgatan, now Olof Palmes gata. September 18, 1985 (from The Stockholm Suite). © Bruno Ehrs.

Bruno Ehrs, The Backside of Kulturhuset. October 1986 (from The Stockholm Suite). © Bruno Ehrs.

Bruno Ehrs and Tom Wolgers: Stockholm – Pieces of a City through January 14, 2024 at Fotografiska in Stockholm.

8 August 2023


Masayoshi Sukita, The Next Moment?, 1977. © Photo by Sukita.

It’s very hard for me to accept that Sukita-san has been snapping away at me since 1972, but that really is the case. I suspect that it’s because 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.


– David Bowie, 2011


The stars look very different today.


January 10, 2016 was such a grievous, particular date. It was the day when news guy wept and told us that David Bowie had passed.


“I believe in the premise of taking yourself to extremes, just to add a deeper cut to one’s personality,” Bowie told an almost famous Cameron Crowe (who still lived with his parents) in 1974. Anyone who forever lives in Bowie’s gorgeously articulate Art Decade, when he could hear tomorrow coming and just seemed to pour out this nimiety of supreme sounds and all these photogenic looks, knows precisely what s/he was doing on that tenth day of the new year and how each of us was trying to deal with the finality and the terrible blow of that message.


“Yes, I was in my bed and checked my email and watched the news which said that Bowie was dead,” says Maurizio Guidoni from Ono Arte Contemporanea in Bologna, who along with his gallery colleague Vittoria Mainoldi and Kulturhuset’s Swedish in-house curator Maria Patomella have produced the excellent Bowie by Sukita – From London to Japan exhibition in Stockholm. “I immediately sent an email to Sukita with my condolences. He responded after three days. He was completely out of words. He always thought that he would die before Bowie because there is a nine-year difference. Aki [the photographer’s nephew and manager] told me that Sukita didn’t want to talk to anyone.”


Sukita’s earliest commemoration appeared through an interview in the February issue of Metropolis, a free magazine for the English-speaking population in Japan: “David Bowie had an amazing aura in front of the camera. Since that first session in 72, I continued to capture him on several other occasions. But to be honest, I don’t think I really understood Bowie that first time. In 77, when I shot the photo for ‘Heroes’, I was desperate to capture his unique aura and his quick movements. My real memory of that day is watching him change his pose continuously and feeling like I had to keep taking as many photos as I could as not to lose the moment. After that day, I took a lot of other people’s portraits; but I never asked them to do this pose or that pose. I always try to capture the artist’s own movements and gestures by keenly observing their worldview. So I believe he changed the way I take photos of people.”


Masayoshi Sukita was born in a coalmining town on the southernmost of Japan’s main islands, the mountainous Kyushu, on May 5, 1938. His father was killed in China just after the end of WWII and the strongest memory that Sukita holds of him is through a photograph of the father bathing together with his brothers in arms. Sukita discovered the world of cinema through his good-natured uncle who assumed the role of a substitute father. Postwar Japan (which in fact was governed by the Allies of the WWII and led by a US administration until 1952) was in no way a place that suited Sukita – so the youngster would often get on his bike and pedal a hundred kilometres to get another fix of screen rebels, musicals, Americana and, in his own words, “visions”.


“American pop culture arrived overwhelmingly in Japan after the end of the Second World War,” Sukita told an interviewer. “I was extremely interested in American culture but I was also intrigued by what was happening in Europe. It was a fertile, productive time in the Western world and over in Japan we were trying to figure out the new styles and trends. I was undoubtedly influenced by pop culture and ever since I was young, I always wanted to take photos that would bear witness to what was happening in the world.”


Sukita was a would-be rebel and a full-out dreamer during his time at the Japan Institute of Photography and Film in Osaka as well. He often skipped the classes for self-studies in “French New Wave cinema and British films too. I felt that the best school lessons were from watching world cinema.” Sukita moved to Tokyo in 1965 and for a number of years he worked in the field of commercial advertising, which was soon also combined with art photography – this new turn in Sukita’s unfolding career transpired as he started to learn from a master in Osaka, Shisui Tanahashi.


You enter the Bowie by Sukita show at Kulturhuset (the House of Culture) in Stockholm through a wall painting of the graphic legs of the black bodysuit with the white stripes called “Tokyo Pop”, which is an original design by Kansai Yamamoto for David Bowie. The first print that meets the visitor is a solitary one from Sukita’s extravagant Watch That Man series (there are several more of these inside of course), with Bowie donning that very suit in front of a bright red backdrop like a Triadischer Ballett figure or some cat from Japan.


And this was Sukita’s second studio session with Bowie, who had requested Sukita for the assignment. It took place at RCA, Bowie’s record label during the 70s, in New York City in 1973 where Bowie was rehearsing with his band before the shows at Radio City Music Hall on February 14–15 (Yamamoto gifted him with five new outfits backstage) and a smaller second tour across the US. Bowie took himself and Ziggy Stardust to Japan for the first time (where there were nine more Yamamoto stage costumes waiting for him), arriving by sea in Yokohama in April – for here was a Starman who refused to fly until the early autumn of 1977 when Bowie just had to make it to Marc Bolan’s funeral.


There is a kind of backroom in the exhibition with a floor-standing lightboard of Sukita and Bowie from the first time that they met in 1972. This room has an elegant arrangement of ordinary blinds cleverly arranged like Japanese hand fans from the ceiling (and an unnecessary tabletop display case with a bland dose of printed matter), but most of all two walls of Sukita’s new and old works that are related only to himself as a quality artist with a set of cameras.


On one wall is a beautiful colour photo of a kimono-wearing woman whose profile face is concealed by a stylish conical hat that takes up one-third of the picture. On the other wall is an even more beautiful piece in black and white of the same composition; one is from 2018 and the other from 1957: “This is the first picture that he took in his life when his mother had given him a camera, his family was so poor but she understood how important that was to him,” says Guidoni. “Sukita told us that this picture of his mother in a summer kimono is still to this day his favourite. It is in the tradition of Japanese photography, and recently he took more or less the same picture, in the same room of the house, of his niece. The kimono is a little bit different but the rest is the same.”


A couple of the few Bowie pictures that do not work so well in the exhibition are from a 1980 photoshoot in Tokyo in which Bowie looks like a remodelled Monsieur Hulot, nine years after Trafic, trapped in the squirrel wheel of a clock that has only ten hours to offer. Bowie by Sukita is in and of itself a lovely, yet melancholy, attestation of the evanescence of time and of photography’s capacity to deal with this treasure in richer ways than to take another cigarette and put it in your mouth. This is also very much so an exhibition about trust.


“David Bowie was portrayed by many, many photographers, but we think that Sukita-san had a special eye for Bowie because they had a special relationship. This relationship lasted for forty years. Masayoshi Sukita couldn’t speak any English so it was mainly a silent relationship based on feelings, inspiration and common grounds,” explains Vittoria Mainoldi. “Another remarkable thing is that the only commission work that Sukita ever did with Bowie was in 1973, the one with the red background. Every other time, they found each other. It was a real friendship and the pictures were meant as two friends exchanging their points of view.”


Guidoni says that his discovery came via one of Sukita’s photobooks, “and I realised that there was something completely different compared to English and American photographers – there is no filter and there is a special atmosphere, something that I have never seen before in my life.” When asked how they got in touch, he says that it was a long process with a string of emails “and no reply. And then we wrote him a letter which we translated into Japanese – no reply. We tried again with a couple of emails, and then we received a reply because Sukita’s nephew realised that they could have exhibitions. Then we met him in Bologna. Sukita was so kind to us and we have done many museum shows in Europe. And books.”


One of these books is David Bowie by Sukita: Spectacular Photos of a Legend (with texts in English and German), which mustn’t be judged by its prosaic cover design since its contents are the opposite with the classic pictures and a rewarding take on the interview format: “People who buy the book write to let us know that this is a fantastic way to tell a story, by Sukita in first person. We had several Skype calls with him and a Japanese translator, several, about everything that we wanted to discuss. We put it together and sent the material to his nephew who translated it for Sukita to approve. I love this way and we try to do this kind of thing with other photographers because in most of the cases they have private access to people, so they are able to tell stories through photography and memories really well.”


According to Maurizio Guidoni, Sukita has never really been that much of a music person himself – “Sukita told me that he didn’t visit Woodstock [in 1969] for the music but because it was the place to be at the time” – and as a musicians’ photographer he has always primarily been into interesting characters and, above all, Bowie’s unique and intriguing persona. By the early 1970s, Sukita had secured sufficient means to live an itinerant life which was absolutely ideal for his wellbeing and for the development of his photography. Andy Warhol’s Factory, Broadway and other such landmarks were of course places of excitement, but it was in London that Sukita pieced it all together with the indispensable assistance of his stylist, translator and key to the artists, Yakko Takahashi.


After a four-hour long photoshoot with Marc Bolan on June 30, 1972, Sukita was strolling back to his hotel when a guy in a kicking rock pose on a street poster piqued his curiosity. The thirty-four-year-old photographer had never heard about this artist before, however much wisely bought a ticket to his concert at the Royal Festival Hall on July 8. Five days later Sukita got his first photoshoot in a borrowed studio with this effete (diamond) pup who had just released an album called The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.


In his book Blood and Glitter, Mick Rock calls Bowie’s alien intersexual rockstar “A dreamer of Dada with glitter in his soul.” Ziggy Stardust’s official photographer was only pleased to salute this colleague from Japan whose first images of Bowie happened when the artist had quite dropped his Lauren Bacall-goes-hippie look of Hunky Dory (Bowie’s first imperative album, released in December 1971) and was advancing towards this new creation – for here was a Starman waiting in the sky with a collection of outrageously great songs, flaming red hair and a living to go with the flamboyant image.


When Ziggy Stardust appeared for the world during three concerts at the Rainbow Theatre in August 1972, there was a blow-up print in the foyer from Sukita’s very recent photoshoot with Bowie. As a reflection, there is a black and white blow-up in Stockholm of the performer in a weird Burretti outfit backstage at this London venue. Bowie is smoking one of his sixty daily cigarettes – having the exit door to his back, which leads “Only to Street” – while he’s peering into some unknown distance, which effectively is in the direction of the stage. His future.


“It was no longer just a matter of music, there was so much more to him,” narrates the photographer in the David Bowie by Sukita publication. “Bowie had arrived on the scene and created a new world for himself which centred around a character from outer space and in that science fiction landscape he himself was the alien star – a new, wildly popular idol with an androgynous, otherworldly appearance. It was completely new, innovative, extraordinary and incredible; it had a profound effect on me.”


In the September 2012 issue of the Australian free magazine Trouble, Sukita told Inga Walton about his first impressions of Bowie: “I quickly realised that David Bowie wasn’t a regular performer. I felt that there was much more going on, so much more depth and imagination than from regular musicians. I understood entirely how he felt about using and playing with different media, how he was also inspired by cinema and combined other ideas with his own concepts to create something bold and new. David-san was expressing many of the interests I also felt and could relate to, ideas that I was trying to show in my own work.”


What does it say about the Boring Twenties that two of the worst films made in this young decade are supposed to be about David Bowie – the ridiculous insult Stardust (2020) and the Gen Z-toadying futility of hypertension, Moonage Daydream (2022)? David Bowie Is was the name of a comprehensive show that opened at the V&A in 2013. The curators persevered with the title’s present tense, and for a good reason, during the two last years when Bowie had left us and the show was still travelling. Masayoshi Sukita’s discernment for everything that David Bowie is – and this must be stressed with pleasure – is pronounced and embodied in these portraits of his friend as they appear at Kulturhuset in Stockholm.


“Around this time, David was beginning to be even more of a nocturnal creature,” Bowie’s childhood friend Geoff MacCormack recalls in his photographic memoir David Bowie: Rock ‘n’ Roll with Me. He toured and travelled with Bowie and also lived with him and his everlasting personal aide Coco Schwab in Los Angeles during the year when the star’s frail health, misery and exercises in sorcery due to an uncontrolled consumption of pharmaceutical cocaine excelled his creative faculty. “Coco and I would try to create some kind of order by occasionally cooking breakfast and getting David up before noon. But one was loath to wake somebody who’d been awake for three days straight. On a good day, Coco and I would knock on David’s bedroom door with a glass of juice and a mug of tea and proclaim, ‘My Lord, William of Orange and the Earl of Grey to see you,’ and he would reply, ‘Enter.’ Then I would hang out with him for a while, watching a film or some TV – the children’s program Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood was a show which eternally fascinated us. That’s how it was. On a good day.”


When Bowie’s third masterpiece Diamond Dogs was out in May 1974, he was already living in New York and soaking up the city’s Hispanic culture forms and the black music that was played at the Apollo. Bowie’s disintegration into coke hell was more than obvious in Cracked Actor (1975), Alan Yentob’s fantastic BBC documentary in which he follows a snivelling, paranoid and yet still utterly creative and fascinating David Bowie for a couple of weeks during his North American Diamond Dogs Tour in the autumn of 1974, when he looked like the living dead that he sings of on that album.


Bowie was down to forty kilos when he appeared at the Grammy Awards in the spring of 1975 and the British music weekly Record Mirror reported on his scrawny state of health: “His physical deterioration was sad to behold. His corpselike appearance only made more grotesque by a severe 50s-style haircut and ill-fitting suit. His voice too was in appalling shape and it was almost pitiful to watch him aiming hoarsely at notes he could once reach with ease.” In all this, Bowie relocated to LA, a place he later referred to as “the most vile pisspot in the world”.


During his two years of living and surviving in America, Bowie (since this is David Bowie) recorded his soul-y Young Americans album (released in March 1975), divinely played the humanoid alien (“My one snapshot memory of that film is not having to act. Just me being as I was perfectly adequate for the role. I wasn’t of this Earth at that particular time”) in Nic Roeg’s rare beauty The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), recorded Station to Station (January 1976), rid himself of the inadequate Mainman organisation and its pack of revellers and, by his own efforts, tacked together a new band in Jamaica for the Isolar – 1976 Tour and the return of the Thin White Duke.


That Europe was closest to Bowie’s heart was evident as he opened the shows with music by Kraftwerk and a screening of the Buñuel–Dalí surrealist short film Un chien andalou (1929). Early on during the forty-date stretch of the North American part of the tour, David Hockney was backstage with Christopher Isherwood whose novels about his time in Weimar Berlin had captivated Bowie – who was an avid reader of all sorts of books – to the point that the writer had to tell him that much of the stories were just figments of imagination (“Young Bowie, people forget that I’m a very good fiction writer”) and that he should similarly realise that the Babylon Berlin of the early-30s was gone for good.


“Ever since his brother Terry had introduced him to bebop jazz and Jack Kerouac, Bowie was in awe of fearless exponents of improvisational writing and performance. Iggy Pop was their modern counterpart and in him Bowie saw his own future. The sessions at Oz [Studios in Hollywood] pointed the way to a new spontaneous working method. For now, he just had to keep Iggy upright long enough to get something down to tape,” argues Roger Griffin in his day-by-day treatise about Bowie’s 1970s, The Golden Years.


On March 26, 1976, Bowie boarded a ship to Cannes for the European leg of the tour (twenty-five more shows) together with Coco, a new awareness about Berlin and some momentous ideas on his mind: “[German Expressionism] was an artform that mirrored life not by event but by mood. This was where I felt my work was going. My attention had been swung back to Europe with the release of Kraftwerk’s Autobahn in 1974. The preponderance of electronic instruments convinced me that this was an area that I had to investigate a little further.”


David Bowie lived at Hauptstrasse 155 in Berlin between October 1976 and February 1978, with Iggy Pop as his playmate. “He arrived in Berlin without his personas and costumes to hide behind and create alien worlds. At almost thirty he was a mature man, ready to go to the next level, not only with his music but in his life as well,” remarks Masayoshi Sukita in David Bowie by Sukita. “‘Heroes’ has always been a very important album for me, not just because of my photo as the album cover but for its search for new sounds and new languages of expression that it has in its foundation. Doing this kind of research in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, just a few steps from the border between two worlds was so innovative that it marked an era.”


Bowie devised a lot of the major ideas for his album (and, on most days, his finest achievement) Low from working on Iggy Pop’s first solo album at Château d’Hérouville in the summer of 1976 – “I thought he was the funniest, darkest lyricist of the time,” Bowie stated many years later. “The Idiot, for me, was a new kind of musical scenario” – and both of these classics were mainly recorded at the Honky Château northwest of Paris. When the work with Low was over, Bowie had to grapple with RCA since the label did not understand it, nor did they find it worthy of a release and was delaying it until January 1977. His next album, “Heroes” (the only record that Bowie actually made in Berlin) was recorded between July and August at Hansa Tonstudio, one hundred and fifty metres from the Wall, and was out in October that same year. And what a year.


Berlin to Bowie was “the antithesis of Los Angeles” and the locals allowed him to live a comparatively regular life in so far as the Berliners minded their own sorrows. “I like to go out and get lost and be in places made of wood, just to wash every shred of America off. Taking a walk was like taking a shower,” he admitted. The Dum Dum Boys discovered Berlin together on bicycle and by foot, went to galleries and art museums (the Brücke Museum was a favourite), watched German art films and the current golden age of New Hollywood cinema, frequented bars and danced at nightclubs where the drinking was beyond all reason.


Since Bowie had a fondness for all kinds of detours, there were many crossings made to the other side of the Wall in his dented black Mercedes-Benz 600 Landaulet limousine (the factual vehicle on the Low track “Always Crashing in the Same Car”) through Checkpoint Charlie. Iggy’s girl in Berlin, Esther Friedman, had a diplomat father who cleared the path for them – adventures done for the great art of being alive and to experience out-of-the-ordinary enjoyments such as the theatre performances at Bertolt Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble. All this for (in today’s money) fourteen euros a day, which was what Coco allowed them to share.


“Bowie and Iggy Pop in Berlin is the most incredible story in popular culture in my opinion,” says Maurizio Guidoni. The name on the door to the seven-room apartment on the first floor to the left in this rather cheap Art Deco building on Berlin’s Hauptstrasse was Jones, Bowie’s actual cognomen. All the rooms were wood panelled and Bowie’s room with the open fire place was the finest, decorated with old paintings, Tiffany lamps, exquisite tapestry and handmade carpeting. Iggy Pop moved to another flat in the building after a while, but constant residents were Coco and Bowie’s five-year-old boy Zowie/Joey (today Duncan Jones) who shared a room with his beloved nanny Marion Skene. Bowie had an atelier for his painting, another room worked as his home studio. Every Thursday eve everyone gathered in front of the TV in a space surrounded by photo murals of the Swiss Alps to relish the 70s cop series Starsky and Hutch.


The rehearsals before The Idiot Tour took place in an old film studio in Berlin. Bowie followed Iggy on tour as his sidekick – Bowie as the unannounced, chain-smoking keyboard player and back-up vocalist, and he was loving every minute of it – through the UK and North America from the first of March till April 16. When they arrived in Tokyo to promote their albums in late April, Sukita was of course in attendance at the press conference and was granted a between-friends natured photoshoot with both Bowie and Iggy Pop, which was swiftly arranged in a borrowed studio in Harajuku the day before they travelled back to Berlin. Bowie’s only requirement was that the photos had to be straightforward black and white portraits, and that Sukita’s stylist and translator Yakko would provide him with a couple of black leather jackets.


“Bowie certainly did not want to be portrayed for his handsome face; he was looking for something else. At a certain point, in fact, he began to muss up his hair and assume expressions of pain and suffering. I had never experienced that in a shoot and it hasn’t happened since; public figures always want to look good in front of the camera,” Sukita reasons in David Bowie by Sukita. “For a photographer like me, capturing Bowie in the ‘Heroes’ period was extraordinary. All I had to do in the Tokyo studio was go along with what was a real and true performance coming from him.”


“Heroes” was conceived at Hansa after Bowie had finished the work with Iggy Pop’s new album in the same old Gestapo dancehall. Producer Tony Visconti deployed three microphones with the last one fifteen metres away to achieve the complete sound for Bowie’s vocals on the title track. They worked with Bowie’s musical director Carlos Alomar on rhythm guitar, Dennis Davis on drums and George Murray on bass – the best of the best. Robert Fripp was given a first-class ticket to cross the Atlantic to put his fantastic guitar work, all in one night and all first takes in real time, on six tracks that he wasn’t allowed to listen to before the takes. Bowie encouraged him to “play with total abandonment”.


“Berlin has the strange ability to make you write only the important things,” Bowie pondered. Not only had he originated a classic recording that summer, there was also this perfect photograph ready for the album cover. It is something of an honour and a luxury to face twenty of his best shots (and two contact sheets) at Kulturhuset from these sixty minutes that Sukita got with Bowie who, seated at a small table, began to model himself according to the same principle that he employed when he soon recorded “Heroes” with “absolutely no idea of the consequences, and no perceptions of any kind”. “Heroes” is a piece of art and Sukita’s image is part and parcel of what makes it so tremendously special.


“I learnt from the session how important it was to make my brain blank and believe in my own senses,” Sukita expressed in an interview. The truth of the matter was of course that he was enthralled by what was taking place before his camera eye, with Bowie doing everything but putting up a front or a character. Bowie, in beige corduroys and the black leather jacket that we see on the cover, fondling the other jackets in a fashion that looks like a bit of posing. Then he sits down at the table – and this is where it’s happening: Bowie turns his whole essence inside out, making himself known as a figure in an Expressionist painting with the show-it-all veneer of a jellyfish (as in a portrait by Egon Schiele), and then the emphasis on the hands. It is fascinating to see his course towards the picture that was chosen (in the almost-there shot, Bowie’s angular left hand is stuck in his hair), and it was the clear favourite for both of them.


That everything with “Heroes” was a success did not safeguard Sukita from humiliation, and the chagrin was threefold. To begin with it was the tactlessness of RCA which regarded these pictures as their property. When they demanded the photographer to hand over everything from this legendary photoshoot, to do as they pleased with his work, Bowie had to step in to tell his record company to shut up and show some manners. Then it was the album itself which RCA “forgot” to send him and the first time Sukita saw it was through the window of a record shop in Japan.


“How much did that single shot add to the mystique of the songs? Enough that it now seems fated. Enough that it caused The Next Day thirty-six years later,” argues Matteo Torcinovich in Outside the Lines: Lost Photographs of Punk and New Wave’s Most Iconic Albums. Bowie’s next-to-last album The Next Day (2013) used the “Heroes” album cover without Sukita’s approval, and designer Jonathan Barnbrook simply just crossed out the title of the original and put a white square on Bowie’s face with the new title inside. The white square reappears on the back as well and you can get what is left of the credits from “Heroes”: “raph Sukita”.


You do feel the ignominy behind the words in David Bowie by Sukita when the author of that photograph talks about the “large white square that seemed almost to censor the photo from 1977. The importance that the image still had for him was evident, even after so many years […] I was of course very impressed by the finished product and the idea behind it.” Maurizio Guidoni responds to Sukita’s strained courtesy by saying that “He is Japanese. But in the documentary Sukita – The Shoot Must Go On [2018], he meets the graphic designer in London and Jonathan Barnbrook apologises for not asking permission to use the image. Consider that they were thinking of using other Bowie sleeve designs but finally chose to use ‘Heroes’ – that is a great honour” – and then the co-curator pauses – “in a sense.”


Bowie abandoned his Berlin home (believe it or not but this historic place is a dental office today) at the beginning of 1978 when he went to Dallas to rehearse with the musicians for the seventy-eight-show-long Isolar II – The 1978 World Tour which lasted from March 29 to December 12. This tour was the best thing that he ever did as a stage performer, and with a backing band that was just out of this world. (At the day of the press preview in Stockholm, a Sukita print from that last show in Tokyo – with the linear fluorescent lamps behind a very stylish Bowie in a Jean Genet-pleasing stage outfit – was supported by the highly inaccurate time stamp of 1983, the year that Bowie put on the red shoes and completely lost it.)


His cover of Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam” was luckily deleted as the track that was meant to end side one of Ziggy Stardust. The same applies to “Crystal Japan” that was intended to be the closing track on one of Bowie’s finest albums, and his last masterpiece, Scary Monsters (September 1980). This so-so instrumental track would however lead him to Japan once again in late March 1980 for a TV commercial for shōchū (a very Nipponese libation) and another great photoshoot with Sukita, whose suggestion was to “shoot photos in ‘loco’ places, instead of so-called Japanese places as temples or shrines”.


This is savvy Bowie on a rainy day in Kyoto – Bowie on the metro, Bowie in a phonebooth, Bowie buying stuff at the old market, Bowie with an umbrella outside the Tawaraya Inn. “He had rented a car and asked me to sit in the back and photograph him,” Sukita reveals in David Bowie by Sukita. “Despite being a great star, Bowie did not live a life divorced from reality and everyday activities. In fact, when he left the car and started our journey on the metro, it was he who went to the ticket window and paid.” On a couple of gridwall panels in the exhibition, there are quite some smaller prints of Bowie buying these tickets and dancing all night long in the basement of his ryokan, of Iggy doing his The Idiot pose in Tokyo and other rock ‘n’ roll related shots like the one with Jim Jarmusch and Joe Strummer from the summer of 1988 when Sukita made his way to the set of Mystery Train.


Questioned why so few of these wonderful Kyoto pictures are shown at Kulturhuset, Guidoni discloses that “I think most of the people want to see the Ziggy Stardust and ‘Heroes’ series – but I think that it is more interesting to see the Kyoto series and we would like to have another book with more pictures from Kyoto. Sukita always asked Bowie for permission to show new pictures, and in most cases Bowie said yes. I believe that Sukita wants to keep some of the Kyoto pictures private because it was probably the most interesting shooting with Bowie.”


In all this Sukita galore, there are some lesser interesting things in Stockholm and they all have to do with 80s Bowie and Tin Machine Bowie (Sukita took the cover photo for the band’s first album in 1989). 80s Bowie was severely marked by the murder of his friend John Lennon on December 8, 1980. Bowie was playing John Merrick in The Elephant Man in New York at the time and struggled to carry out next evening’s performance. There were three empty front-row seats that night at the Booth Theatre on Broadway: one for Lennon, one for Yoko Ono and one for the killer. Bowie revealed in 2010 that he was next on the list.


Just back in London after holidaying with his son, Bowie appeared in a fine interview on ITV’s Afternoon Plus in February 1979. One of Marvis Nicholson’s questions was if he felt a bit like the alien protagonist that he portrayed in The Man Who Fell to Earth, a man (as she called it) “in his own void”? “Thematically I’ve always dealt with isolation in everything I’ve written, I think,” Bowie said with great attention to his host. “It’s that peculiar part of the human mind that fascinates me – about the small universes that can be created inside the mind, some of them fairly schizophrenic and quite off the wall.”


Bowie by Sukita is a one damn song.

Masayoshi Sukita, A Day in Kyoto 6 – Departure, 1980. © Photo by Sukita.
Bowie by Sukita – From London to Japan at Kulturhuset in Stockholm through September 3, 2023.