A Double Misedashi in Gion Kobu

Maiko Tatsuha gets help from Mamekinu and an otokoshi on the day of her misedashi (debut)
Maiko Tatsuha gets help from Mamekinu and an otokoshi on the day of her misedashi (debut)

Photographing the misedashi (debut) of the maiko Yuriha and Tatsuha last Saturday, January 21, was by the far the biggest challenge I've ever faced as a photographer, for several different reasons. In this first of several posts, I hope to take you through the first hour and let you know what I was thinking and feeling at the time.

Let's get started!

I arrive at Tama, the okiya (geisha house) where Yuriha and Tatsuha live, a minute or two before 9:30 a.m., the time I was told to be there.

It's hard for me to fit through the door. My camera is already around my neck and I'm holding it steady with my left hand. I have a bag with all my backup gear slung over my shoulder, and I'm holding a light stand with a Nikon speedlight already mounted on it in my right hand. The reasons for this will be clear in a minute.

I don't want to bang either the door or my equipment, so I carefully ease my way through the narrow entrance. M-san, a former geiko who manages most of the day-to-day affairs of the Tama okiya, comes out from the kitchen to greet me.

I have known M-san for about 5 years now, and she has always been kind to me. It's nice to see a friendly face first thing. I know I probably won't see many today!

M-san wants to take my jacket and hat, and it takes me a minute to unwrap myself from all my gear and give them to her. I take off my shoes and slip inside.

All of sudden things start happening very fast.

Tatsuha comes down the stairs from the second floor, greets me, and heads back upstairs. There's another girl with her, but it's not Yuriha. She must be the other Tama minarai.

A shikomi (a girl in training to be a maiko) comes out of the kitchen as M-san comes back from taking care of my jacket. M-san tells the shikomi to look after me and disappears.

I turn to head up the stairs, eager to start setting up. The shikomi turns to go back into the kitchen. When she sees that I'm not following her, she stops, confused.

I realize the shikomi is waiting to take me to greet Tama-san, the owner of the house. I can feel the seconds ticking away, but I know I need to say good morning to Tama-san. I follow the shikomi into the kitchen.

Tama-san and several other women are talking in the kitchen. This is my fourth time photographing at Tama, and she seems to remember me this time. We exchange pleasantries, and I thank her for allowing me in her house again. I know she's busy, so the shikomi and I make a quick exit. I'm anxious to get upstairs and get ready.

The stairs to the second floor are narrow and very steep, but I manage to keep my balance as I make my way up, still holding my camera in my left hand and the light stand in my right.

When I reach the second floor, I am knocked completely off balance.

Yuriha is already kneeling in front of the makeup artist, and when she turns to look at me, her face is already painted white.

I have already missed half of her makeup!

I was told the makeup artist would be arriving at 9:30 a.m., the same time as me. Clearly, she arrived much earlier. This is the first thing that makes photographing a misedashi or erikae so challenging. You never know exactly what is going to happen!

This is also why my camera is already around my neck and my speedlight is already on the stand. I knew something like this could happen and wanted to be as ready as I could be.

I would love to start freaking out right now, but I simply don't have the time.

M-san has been waiting for me. "Can I leave my bag here?" I ask her. I can. "Can you ask the makeup artist to give me a little more room behind her, please?" She asks.

The makeup artist is the same woman who did the makeup the other three times I've been at Tama, so she knows me and knows where I want to go. She and Yuriha don't move, but there is a woman sitting near the makeup artist, and she moves some things out of the way for me.

My lighting umbrella is right on top of my bag, so I quickly take it out and mount it in front of my speedlight. I turn my camera on and I'm ready to go.

I also take in the rest of the room. Besides the makeup artist, Yuriha, and the other woman (the makeup artist's assistant?), there are two more woman watching from the other side of the room. They are probably Yuriha's mother and older sister, but I have no way of knowing.

The room where maiko and geiko put their makeup on at Tama is a rectangle, with the east and west sides being the long ones. The entrance is on the north wall, which is where I am standing now. The makeup area is on the west wall, to my right as I look south.

The makeup artist is facing east, and Yuriha is facing west. Yuriha's mother and sister are sitting by the south wall, facing me.

There are dressers and cabinets along the west wall, except for where there is a door to the veranda. I have to squeeze in front of the door and fit my light and stand there, too. It's a pretty tight fit.

I'm sitting right behind the makeup artist, and Yuriha is facing me. They are both to my left.

I look at Yuriha. Her face is white, but the makeup artist is applying the pink that goes on top of the white base.

I breathe a silent sigh of relief. I haven't missed too much, and I'm ready to go. It's going to be okay.

Literally just as I think this (and before I can even make a photo of Yuriha), Tatsuha comes back in the room. I've completely forgotten about her.

To my horror, she sits down to my right, in front of the woman I thought was the makeup artist's assistant. She is not the makeup artist's assistant! She is a second makeup artist, and she is going to work on Tatsuha's makeup. Starting right now!

Are you kidding? Someone somewhere is really laughing at me and my predicament.

I haven't even made a photograph, and I have to move my light. Right now, it's to my right and it's facing left, towards Yuriha. It's blocking Tatsuha and the second makeup artist. I can't photograph both Yuriha and Tatsuha with my light in this position.

Where can I put my light so I can photograph both Yuriha and Tatsuha and not have it look completely horrible?

If you've ever seen the classic film High Noon, you have some idea how I'm feeling right now. I can see that big clock on the wall, and the seconds are ticking away. Yuriha and Tatsuha are only getting their makeup applied for the first time once, and that's right now, and I'm missing it.

I'm not panicking, but I do feel a sense of urgency. I need to start making photographs soon. I'm never getting these moments back.

Where can I put my light?

Where?

The corner. That's literally my only option. There is simply no place else. There is either a piece of furniture or a person occupying every other possible spot in the room.

I stand up, pick up my light stand, and walk behind the makeup artist, behind Yuriha and Tatsuha, in front of Yuriha's mother and sister, and to the southwest corner of the room. Fortunately, I don't smack anyone in the head with my stand.

Unfortunately, Yuriha's mother and sister have piled their coats and bags in the corner where I need to put my light. I have no idea what they must be thinking of this crazy foreigner running around the room, but I whisper to them that it would help me very much if they could move their things. They comply, their faces blank and emotionless. Remember what I said about M-san's smiling and friendly face?

I set my light down in the corner. There is just enough room for it next to the big dresser and behind the second makeup artist. I have to raise the light up so it goes over the makeup artist's head, and I point it more towards the north wall and the doorway than at either Tatsuha or Yuriha.

I want the light to pass by both of them and still light both of them. Tatsuha is now much closer to the light than Yuriha, so Tatsuha will be much brighter and Yuriha will be darker -- unless I change my camera settings.

My light meter is right in my vest pocket. I quickly pull it out and take a reading next to Tatsuha's face. I had guessed right the night before, and my camera is already set perfectly to photograph Tatsuha.

I take a reading next to Yuriha's face. Much darker. To get a proper exposure, I'm going to have to open up my lens 1 f-stop when I want to photograph Yuriha.

More time has passed, and I still haven't made a single photo. But I have a workable plan now. I think.

I'm closer to Tatsuha, so I decide to stay there and start photographing with her in the foreground and Yuriha in the background. The second makeup artist is just about to apply the bintsuke (a sticky wax) to Tatsuha's face, so I haven't missed any of Tatsuha's makeup yet.

I take a quick test shot. Tatsuha is exposed correctly, and Yuriha is a little dark, but not too dark.

Finally, finally, I'm on my way.

I make a few photos, but I quickly decide I need to move. When a makeup artist (or a geiko or maiko herself) applies the bintsuke, the maiko or geiko's face is tugged and pulled in all different directions. This does not make for very flattering photographs.

Instead of photographing Tatsuha and the bintsuke, I move to Yuriha. I have to move completely around the circle again, behind Tatsuha and Yuriha, then behind the first makeup artist, back to my spot in the veranda doorway.

From this position, if I turn to my left, I can photograph Yuriha. If I turn to my right, I can photograph Tatsuha. I just need to remember to change my f-stops depending on who I am photographing, which is very easy to forget in the heat of the moment.

Yuriha's face is a smooth white now, but the first makeup artist has not started working or her eyebrows yet. I haven't really missed that much, considering.

And now I face another challenge. I can only point my camera in one direction at a time. Who do I photograph, Yuriha or Tatsuha? Or, since I'm using a 24-70mm wideangle zoom, do I photograph them both at the same time?

There is no right, wrong, or easy answer to this. I just follow my instinct. At the beginning, I'm focusing more on Yuriha since she is so much closer to being finished.

I'm also keeping an eye on Tatsuha. When I see something interesting happening her way, I switch to her for a few seconds.

I photograph them both individually for a time, but since this is a double misedashi, I want to have some photographs with both of them in the frame at the same time.

I move back into the south corner and try that. At first it isn't working, and then I find the right angle and it is.

I move back to my position between the two and try some wide angle photos from there. This is the best angle, but also the trickiest. The two makeup artists are like windshield wipers, moving in front of the maiko and then moving off to the side.

Unfortunately, the makeup artists do not move in sync like real windshield wipers, so one is usually blocking a maiko from my view, and sometimes both are. I can keep waiting until both are out of the way, but that clock is still ticking. If I spend too much time waiting for them to move, I'm missing the chance to get more individual photos of both maiko.

And so it goes. Somewhere in here I forget all about that High Noon ticking clock and time actually seems to slow down for me. I know I'm not getting everything, but I am getting enough.

There were other challenges, but once I found my rhythm I could handle them in stride.

When it was time for Yuriha's lipstick to be applied, I was ready. And then Yuriha was done and Tatsuha moved over to the first makeup artist for the finishing touches. I could focus solely on Tatsuha then, which made life easier.

At 10:22 a.m. I made my final photo of Tatsuha having her makeup applied.

I had been at Tama less than an hour, and I had already weathered several storms.

There were more to come.