The secret to photographing an erikae (the début of a geisha) is, like many things, easy to say and hard to do.
At Momifuku’s erikae, my keys to success were being ready to improvise, listen, and be considerate. If I hadn’t done these things, I never would have been able to make this image.
Be Ready to Improvise
Before you can be ready to improvise, you have to be prepared, and I was prepared for Momifuku’s début. I had to be, because I had literally no information about it besides the time and the place.
A few weeks before Momifuku’s big day, I got word that I would be able to photograph the proceedings. That’s it. I didn’t even know where Momifuku’s house, the Yamaguchi okiya, was.
I had many questions. Could I see the room first? Could I bring a light and stand with me? Part of the problem was that communication between the hanamachi (districts where geiko and maiko live and work) can be convoluted.
I am connected to a tea house in Gion Kobu, but a tea house in Gion Kobu cannot directly hire a geiko or maiko from Ponto-cho or any other district. They have to go through a tea house in Ponto-cho.
So, when I had questions, I asked my friends in Gion, they asked a tea house in Ponto-cho, and the tea house in Ponto-cho asked Yamaguchi. Of course, all these people are very busy and have more important concerns than whether or not I could bring a light stand into the Yamaguchi okiya.
The owner of the tea house in Ponto-cho, decoyoshida, even took me to the Yamaguchi okiya about a week before the erikae. Unfortunately, no one was home at the time, so I couldn’t see the room or ask any questions. At least I knew where Yamaguchi was, though!
Since I didn’t know if I could use a light or not, I had to have a plan A, B, and C. Plan A was that I could use my light on a stand, plan B was that I had to use my flash on camera or place it somewhere in the room without a stand, and plan C was that I could use no flash at all.
I ended up using a combination of plans.
Be Ready to Listen… and Interpret
When I arrived at the Yamaguchi okiya on the morning of Momifuku’s début, Momifuku greeted me herself. She looked a bit tired and tense.
Momifuku introduced me to the key people in her okiya, and we proceeded into the room where the maiko and geiko put on their makeup and dress in their kimono.
Momichō, Momifuku’s onesan (older sister), seemed to be in charge, and at the first chance I had I asked her if I could set up my light on a stand. She said I could. Great!
A few other geiko and maiko poked their head in the room, and I realized with a sinking feeling that I hadn’t prepared as well as I should have. I never learned the names of any of Momifuku’s geiko and maiko sisters, so I didn’t know who anyone was!
Momichō and the others soon left the room, and Momifuku sat down at her makeup stand. I couldn’t put the light in front of her because Momifuku was sitting at a table. The light could go to her left or to her right.
I chose the left because it was farther from the door, which made it less likely that someone would bump into it. It was not the ideal location, but it was the best option I had. I made a few test images to check the lighting.
“Do you need to use the light?” Momifuku suddenly asked me.
I could have just said yes, but something made me pause. It was a strange question for her to ask, so why was she asking it? I realized she didn’t want me to use the light. It was disturbing her in some way.
As I said, Momifuku seemed to be a little stressed, and this was her big day, not mine. I wanted to accommodate her if I could. “I don’t know,” I told her. “Let me check.”
I was stalling. My plan A was working, and I was attached to it.
I turned off the light. I had my light meter with me, so I took a reading from the lights above the makeup stands. There was not much light. Fortunately, only the lights at Momifuku’s stand were on. The other two stands were off.
“Can you turn the other lights on?” I asked Momifuku. She didn’t even have to move. She reached out and flipped the switch. Presto! I had enough light.
I realized that Momifuku’s forcing me to go to plan C was better than plan A. The light from a makeup stand comes from the front, and it is designed to be flattering. My light would have been more powerful, but it had to come from the side. Definitely not flattering!
“Thank you, Momifuku!” I thought. I was ready, Momifuku was ready, and she began.
Once Momifuku began applying her makeup, her older sisters came in to greet her and offer advice and companionship.
One of the first to make an appearance was Momiyuki, who appears in the image that accompanies this post.
Although my light was off, it was still positioned to Momifuku’s left. As a result, I was photographing her mainly from that side so my light would not be in the frame.
Momiyuki came in and sat down by Momifuku’s kimono, which was already hanging on the wall. Momifuku’s obi and under kimono were neatly folded on the floor underneath the kimono.
Although she didn’t need to, Momiyuki began refolding Momifuku’s things, I think just to have something to do as she talked to Momifuku.
At this point, I was literally in between Momiyuki and Momifuku, so in a sense I was blocking or interrupting their conversation. I didn’t want to be rude to Momiyuki, so I decided to move over to Momifuku’s right side.
And I captured Momiyuki’s face in not one mirror, but two! I was not consciously aware of it at the time, but Momifuku was holding her hand mirror at just the right angle to show me Momiyuki’s reflection.
And then the moment, and the reflection, were gone.
And that’s why I have titled this post the secret to photographing an erikae. I think this image is probably the most unique (and difficult) one I made at all three of the erikae that I photographed and that appear in my new book Now a Geisha, which is available in both the U.S. and Japan.
If I hadn’t been considerate and moved out of Momiyuki’s line of sight, I wouldn’t have been in the right position to make it. And if I hadn’t turned off my more powerful light, Momifuku would have been lit properly, but Momiyuki would have been shrouded in darkness since my light was turned away from her.
Those are my secrets. I think they apply to more than just photography, so I hope you can use them, too!