This portrait of the maiko Makiko reminds me of the calm at the center of a storm.
Although it might look like Makiko is alone here, she is actually surrounded by other geiko and maiko from the Nishimura okiya, and these geiko and maiko are surrounded by scores of photographers and other onlookers.
I made this portrait at the corner of Shijo and Hanamikoji, the busiest intersection in Gion Kobu. I almost never photograph the geiko and maiko I know there. (To find out why, read my post “The Geisha Teruhina and the Photo I Didn’t Take.”)
However, I just had a feeling that I wasn’t going to get many chances with so many people around, and I had better seize the moment while I could.
I had been photographing Makiko and her best friend Yukako for many years at this point, and they knew by this time to pretend that I wasn’t there at large events like these. In other words, I didn’t want them looking into my lens.
Yukako was standing to Makiko’s right and frame left, and I had just finished making a some portraits of her. I knew I only had a few seconds before the light changed and they would cross the street.
I turned my lens to Makiko and was ecstatic to find that she was more concerned with the cold than with me. She had completely forgotten my presence and was huddling into her shawl on this brisk December day.
The only problem was that Makiko was standing a few steps nearer to me than Yukako was, and I was photographing with a telephoto lens (which has a minimum focus distance of just over 1 meter, which means that I have to be standing farther away than that to be able to get a sharp image).
I stepped back into the street as far as I dared. I didn’t want to get sideswiped by a taxi! It still wasn’t far enough, so I planted my feet and leaned back from the waist, keeping one eye on traffic and the other on Makiko. That did it, and I managed to make a few frames.
As it turned out, my instincts were correct. I never managed to make another photo of Yukako that day, and I only made a few more of Makiko about forty minutes later as she was returning home.
Finally, I want to make it very clear that I had arranged with Yukako and Makiko before this event (Koto Hajime, held every December 13 in Kyoto) to photograph them. They knew I was going to be there and gave me their permission to photograph them.
And I would not have gotten so close to any other maiko or geiko, then or now. This photo was made just after I finished work on my book Geisha & Maiko of Kyoto: Beauty, Art, & Dance, and both Yukako and Makiko appeared in that book. We had been working together for years, so I could enter their personal space some because they knew me very well.
I think it is important to keep in mind that when we enter an environment, any environment, we are affecting that environment whether we realize it or not just by being there.
And sometimes our presence has unintended consequences. For instance, when I was photographing Yukako and Makiko here, other photographers quickly gathered around and moved in closer as well.
These photographers had know way of knowing that I knew Yukako and Makiko, or that I had explained to them beforehand what I was going to to do and were allowing me to do it. All they knew was that I moved closer, so they could also move closer, too.
As a result, I have pretty much stopped going to big public events involving geiko and maiko. I couldn’t figure out how not to make my presence affect the environment in a negative way at times despite my best intentions. And I care far too much about the geiko and maiko I know to want to have a negative impact on them, even a small one.
I think I have finally found a way to make sure my presence stays positive or at least neutral, so I might dip my foot back in slightly to see if it works. If it doesn’t, I will continue to stay away.
I hope all photographers and visitors to the hanamachi will consider how their presence in that beautiful environment is affecting it. And be thankful that we still have them to visit!