This is the second post in a series about photographing the debut (misedashi) of the maiko Yuriha and Tatsuha in Gion Kobu on January 21, 2017. A double misedashi is a rare event, and getting to photograph one is even rarer.
Let’s get started!
After Yuriha and Tatsuha’s makeup has been applied (as described in my last post), both girls leave the room. I breathe a silent sigh of relief and jump into action again.
I feel better because now I do know what is coming next. Yuriha and Tatsuha will be dressed in their kimono, and I know only one girl will be dressed at a time.
I don’t know how soon this is going to happen, though, so I grab my light and move it into position. Because of the size and shape of the room, there is really only one place I can put it, right next to the mirror that you see Yuriha looking into in the photo posted above.
I think I finally have some time to relax when Tatsuha comes back in the room and sits down in a chair right where Yuriha is standing in the photo. M-san, the former geiko who manages the day-to-day affairs of the Tama geisha house, comes over and starts putting in Tatsuha’s kanzashi (hair ornaments).
I wasn’t expecting this, but my light is set perfectly and I’m ready to go. I make a few photographs, and Tatsuha whispers something to M-san.
M-san chuckles and says, “John-san, please don’t photograph her legs.”
Tatsuha is wearing a white robe, and she is already wearing tabi, the Japanese “socks” that are ankle-high. I can see about an inch of Tatsuha’s shins between the robe and the tabi. It’s not much, but clearly it is making Tatsuha self-conscious.
“Don’t worry, I won’t,” I reply. I am also aware that M-san will not want to be recognizable in any of my photographs, which is almost impossible since she is putting the kanzashi in Tatsuha’s hair!
I do my best to keep M-san’s face out of the frame and still keep a pleasing composition that tells the story of a maiko being dressed for the first time. It’s not so easy to do!
That evening, when I am checking the photos on my computer, I start mentally kicking myself. I could have just moved closer to Tatsuha and M-san and even less of M-san would have appeared in the frame. Why hadn’t I moved closer?
Then I realize that if I had moved closer, I might have made Tatsuha feel more self-conscious. My instincts at the time told me to stay where I was, and so I did.
This instinct, knowing when to push and more importantly, when not to, is I think the number one factor for any success I have had photographing geiko and maiko.
When M-san is finished, I approach Tatsuha, still sitting in the chair. I show her an image on the back of my camera and tell her that I photographed her only from the waist up, except for one photo, and I will delete that one photo as soon as I get home. She doesn’t need to worry about her legs appearing in any of the photos. And I did delete that photo.
Tatsuha leaves the room again, and only I and the two makeup artists remain. Tama-san herself soon comes in, followed by the shikomi who I met when I first arrived a little over an hour ago. The shikomi has coffee and three little plates of pink rice and red beans, a dish that is served at celebratory occasions in Japan.
Tama-san thanks the makeup artists for their work and serves them the coffee and rice. To my surprise, she also serves me, and says to the makeup artists, “This man really loves the culture of geiko and maiko.” I am quite shocked by this. I didn’t even think Tama-san remembered me, and here she is giving me about the nicest compliment the owner of an okiya could give me.
Tama-san chats with us (mainly with the makeup artists) for a few more minutes and then takes her leave. The rice and beans are good, but it is about 11:00 a.m. and my stomach is starting to growl. I wolf down an energy bar. I’m going to need all the energy I can get soon.
My biggest worry for the rest of the morning is not about photography. It is physical. I know from experience that the best place for me to photograph a maiko or geiko getting dressed is for me to be crouched down under my light.
I am over 6 feet tall and I am no longer as young (or limber) as I used to be. My body does not react very well to being scrunched into a little ball. By the end of photographing one maiko or geiko getting dressed, my legs are usually stiff and aching and standing up becomes quite challenging. Today I am going to be photographing two maiko getting dressed, and I don’t know if my legs will be able to take it!
It is a little before 11:30 a.m. when Kojima-san, the otokoshi who dresses all the geiko and maiko from Tama, arrives with his assistant, and Yuriha is being dressed soon after.
Photographing Yuriha getting dressed goes very smoothly. I know there are certain moments when I want to show a wide angle veiw, and other moments when I want to zoom in to catch a smile or laugh.
Almost all the geiko and maiko I have photographed being dressed have the same reaction at the same moments, and now I can anticipate these moments and be ready for them.
Several of Yuriha’s family are present, but I still can move around the room quiet freely to get different angles. Before I know it, Yuriha is finished, and my legs are only mildly stiff.
Then it is Tatsuha’s turn, and suddenly the room is jam-packed full of people. My focus is on Tatsuha, not the rest of the room, but when I count later, Tatsuha has 8 family members present. Eight! There are also the 2 makeup artists, Kojima-san and his assistant, Tama-san, and several geiko and maiko I can’t keep track of, and me (and my light on a stand with a medium umbrella).
Tatsuha’s kimono needs some adjusting, so her dressing takes longer than Yuriha’s. And this is bad news for me. I look down at my hands, and they are dripping with beads of sweat even though it is the middle of winter. I suddenly realize that my shirt is soaked through as well, and my legs are starting to tremble.
M-san looks at me with a worried expression and says, “John-san, are you okay?” I reply with what I hope is a confident yes but probably isn’t.
And now I know I really need to concentrate. If I get careless, I’ll either miss some photos or make bad ones. I especially need to be aware of keeping the lines (doors, walls, cabinets) in the room straight. If I start photographing at awkward angles to ease the pain in my legs, the photographs will come out crooked. I don’t want that.
I try to move around the room some, but it’s difficult when I can barely stand up straight. And with so many of Tatsuha’s family present, it’s better I stay where I am. At one point I do try to get a reverse angle, but to do so I have to block Tatsuha’s grandfather, which I only want to do for a second or two.
Then Tatsuha is ready, and people start to leave. Yuriha and Tatsuha get some words of advice from Tama-san, and suddenly I am the only person left in the room. All the others have headed downstairs. Since there were just 20 people or so and so much life and good feeling, the room seems really empty and quiet.
I am soaking wet and exhausted, but I think I’ve done pretty well.
And I still need to get downstairs and photograph Yuriha and Tatsuha’s walk around Gion!