On October 10, 2014 the National Museum of Ethnology in the Netherlands is opening an exhibit on geisha and inviting visitors to “meet the powerful woman behind the mask.”
The first geisha visitors will be encountering is Toshikana of Miyagawa-cho, who will be greeting guests from a banner that will hang in front of the museum, posters of varying sizes, and several other sources.
I made the photograph of Toshikana the museum will be using a few months ago in May 2014, but I had no idea then that a museum would soon be licensing it. In fact, if it weren’t for series of fortunate events, this image would not have been made at all.
And if not for “a little help from my friends” (some of whom I have never even met), I would not have been introduced to the National Museum of Ethnology.
Until two days before this portrait was made, I had absolutely no intention of photographing Toshikana against this blue background or with this lighting or lens.
The reason is that I had last photographed Toshikana in January 2014 as a maiko performing the dance “Kurokami,” and I had photographed her against a colored background using this same lens, a Nikkor 70 – 200 mm that allows me to make both medium shots like this one and close ups with just a twist of the zoom.
I was going to photograph Toshikana, now a geiko, dancing “Kurokami” again in May, but this time I was going to use a wide angle lens so I could capture her from head to toe. I was also going to use the fusuma (sliding doors) of the teahouse as the background.
When geiko and maiko dance for guests in ochaya, the background is usually a byobu (folding screen) or the fusuma of the room they are dancing in. I alternate between using seamless colored paper as a background (for a studio look) and using byobu, fusuma, and shoji (for a more enivronmental portraiture look).
As I wrote last month, my plans changed suddenly when I met Toshikana two days before our photos session while I was scouting locations in Miyagawa-cho. The first thing I noticed was the very unique blue and white striped kimono Toshikana was wearing.
Geiko usually wear kimono that are one solid color, and off the top of my head I can only recall a handful of times in the more than twelve years I have been photographing geiko that I have seen a kimono with some kind of striped or checked pattern, and none that looked like this.
I knew that the blue background would complement the colors of Toshikana’s kimono nicely, so I decided to have the seamless paper set up and ready to go for after I finished photographing Toshikana dancing in front of the fusuma.
I met Toshikana at her okiya at 5:30 p.m., photographed her on the streets of Miyagawa-cho for about 50 minutes, and then we took a taxi to Gion Kobu to the ochaya where I regularly photograph.
Only 15 minutes after we left Miyagawa-cho I was already photographing Toshikana dancing “Kurokami” in the ochaya against the fusuma with lighting that had more shadow and contrast to it.
After the fusuma, I switched to the blue background, but I kept the lighting more shadowy at first since “Kurokami” is a dark and sad song. It was only at 8:00, two-and-a-half hours after we started, that I changed the lighting to this almost shadowless beauty light.
I just checked my photos, and I literally only photographed Toshikana with this lighting and this background for seven minutes and thirty seconds. But that was all the time we needed!
As I said at the beginning of this post, I couldn’t have made this image without a little help from my friends. That of course starts with Toshikana. I don’t think I would have been able to make this image with any other geiko or maiko except Toshikana.
Three hours is a long time for a photo session, and Toshikana and I moved from making outdoor portraits on the streets of Miyagawa-cho to making environmental portraits in a teahouse in Gion to making studio-like portraits with a different background and lighting, all in two hours and forty minutes (including the taxi ride from Miyagawa-cho to Gion and not including the last 20 minutes of the session, where we relaxed and talked with drinks and snacks).
There is no way I could have done so much with any other geiko or maiko. I wouldn’t have even tried with anyone else. So, I owe a very big thank you to the one-and-only Toshikana!
I also need to publicly thank Kjeld Duits, a photographer from the Netherlands who has made Japan his home since the early 1980s. I have never met Kjeld, but he recommended me to the good people at the National Museum of Ethnology. Thank you for thinking of me, Kjeld!
At the Museum of Ethnology, Geke Vinke, the head of the museum’s marketing and PR departments, communicated very clearly with me as to what kind of image the museum was looking for, making it easy for me to search through the literally thousands of images I have of geiko and maiko in Kyoto to find the one that Geke could use to publicize the exhibit. I hope all her hard work pays off in a wonderful (and well-attended) exhibit!
Finally, since the image of Toshikana is going to appear on a banner 2.5 x 2 meters (yes, meters!), I had the excellent retoucher (and Kyoto native) Natsuko Koizumi make sure Toshikana would look her best at larger-than-life size.
Natsuko is one of the few people who understands photography, retouching, and the unique culture of Kyoto, so I am very lucky to get to work with her from time to time. Thanks, Natsuko!
The National Museum of Ethnology’s geisha exhibit runs from October 10, 2014 until April 6, 2015. I hope anyone in that part of Europe has the chance to visit, as I hope to do early in 2015!