It’s hard to believe that it’s already been a year and a few days since the geisha Manaha made her debut as a geiko in Gion Kobu in Kyoto.
I had already been photographing Manaha for two years by this time, and what surprised me the most about her erikae was how much interest she took in my photography that day.
When Manaha first came into the room, my assistant and I had already set up and were waiting. She looked at where I was and then looked at the heater that was directly opposite me. Manaha would soon be sitting between me and the heater. “Is that going to be in your shot?” she asked me, referring to the heater.
“Sometimes, but don’t worry,” I said. “It was in the same place when I photographed Mameharu last year and it wasn’t a problem. I can usually frame it out.” Manaha looked at the two shikomi who were watching and waiting in the other corner of the room. “Let’s move it,” Manaha said to them, and in a few moments the heater was disconnected from the wall and sitting out in the hallway. Problem solved!
This happened about 10:00 a.m. By 2:30 p.m. Manaha had been made up, fitted with her new katsura, dressed in her black kimono, been introduced to most of the ochaya in Gion Kobu, and returned to her okiya. The day was almost over, but I had promised Manaha that I would make a family portrait for her. I had about five minutes.
Manaha, her parents, and a few other relatives all gathered for me and sat on a long sofa in the “home bar” of the okiya. I was about to make the photograph when Manaha asked, “Are you sure you’re in the right place? Can you see all of us?”
I knew Manaha wasn’t questioning my skills as a photographer. She just wanted to make sure that the photo turned out well. “Yes, I can see all of you. I’ve done this a few times before, Manaha. Don’t worry. It will be fine.”
In fact, I was in the right place, but I was also in the only place. My back was jammed against the bar so I could fit everyone in the frame, and my assistant was either standing on the bar itself or on a chair right behind the bar holding the one light we were permitted to have. There wasn’t any room for either of us to move anywhere.
I gave Manaha two versions of the portrait I made, one with everyone serious and the other with everyone laughing or smiling. At our next photo session, I asked her if she liked the photos. She didn’t answer. She just took out her iPhone, turned it on, and showed it to me. My portrait was on her phone’s home screen.
I guess she liked it.
The photo I’ve posted above was actually taken the day after these events I’ve written about. Manaha was much more relaxed on the second day, known as orei mawari in Japanese, and I actually enjoyed this day much more as well. I think we were both feeling much less pressure!
Several times that morning Manaha looked into my lens and held my gaze for quite a few steps, giving me more than enough time to make some nice portraits of her. I don’t know what she was thinking at the time, of course, but I enjoy her expression in all of them.
Note: I incorrectly called the day after a geiko’s erikae aisatsu mawari, which is only the name for the greetings she performs on the day of her erikae in her formal black kimono. As a result, I have edited this post on June 17, 2014 and changed all references from aisatsu mawari to orei mawari, the correct term.
My apologies for any confusion!