The Geisha Mamehana and Shadows

A Portrait of the Geisha Mamehana of Gion Kobu
A Portrait of the Geisha Mamehana of Gion Kobu

This portrait of the geisha Mamehana was a happy accident and a reminder to always be mindful of what the light is doing in a room.

Mamehana and I had just finished our drinks and snacks during a break in the middle of a photo session. Since the zashiki (the room where parties are held with geiko and maiko in ochaya) is usually filled with lights, reflectors, and other camera and lighting gear, we take our break just outside, in the hallway.

The hallway is quite dark, illuminated only by a single tungsten light bulb that is quite unique. The globe around the filament is clear, and it's about the size of a softball. The ochaya-san has told me that this kind of light is specially designed to give flattering skin tones, but I don't know if that's really true or not. In any case, I've never seen another light bulb quite like it.

I had just gotten up and was thinking about what I had to do next. Mamehana was checking her makeup and katsura in her hand mirror. Before I entered the zashiki, I happened to glance back at Mamehana. And I stopped dead in my tracks.

There was a strange shadow moving across Mamehana's face. I liked it right away.

"Ooh! What's that?" I said.

"What's what?" Mamehana replied.

"On your face!" I said.

Mamehana got worried. "Is there something on my face?" My conversations with Mamehana would often proceed like this. If you're old enough to remember the Abbott and Costello routine "Who's on first?" you'll know what I mean. I often felt like Abbott to Mamehana's Costello when we talked.

"Yes, an amazing shadow! Where's it coming from?"

"I don't know," she told me.

The shadow was obviously a reflection, but I didn't know from where. I moved behind Mamehana, and I saw it. Mamehana's hand mirror had a frame around the edges in the shape of pine tree, the kind you often see as the background on stages in the Noh theater.

Mamehana had placed herself in the perfect position as she checked her makeup. The light from the tungsten globe was above and behind her to her right (frame left), so when she held her mirror up, the light bounced off the mirror and made the twisting shadows on her face.

"Stay right there! Don't move!" I rushed into the zashiki to get my camera and tripod. I had been photographing Mamehana for three years at this point, and she knew that I didn't usually get so excited. She waited patiently for me, a bemused smile on her face.

It took about ten minutes from the time I noticed the shadow until I made the final portrait, one of the best ten minutes I've ever spent making a portrait. I can't really claim to have made it, either. Mamehana practically wrapped this present for me herself even if she wasn't aware she had done so.

It took a few minutes to find the right angle for Mamehana to hold the mirror to get the reflections where I wanted them on her face, and then Mamehana had to stay very, very still. If she moved her hand even slightly, the shadows covered her right eye or part of her mouth, which I wanted to avoid.

Our session continued for another hour or so that day, but it was all anti-climactic after this portrait. I photographed her for the last time dancing almost exactly a year later, and that was another incredibly memorable photo session.

Mamehana retired a few months after our final dance portrait session, and I said goodbye to her a month before she left Gion Kobu for good.

I'm still on first base in Gion Kobu, but Mamehana is now somewhere out in left field. I hope to run into her again some time as we both make our way around the bases.