Maiko and Mondays

This portrait of the maiko Tanewaka of Miyagawa-cho is the main image on my homepage, but I wouldn't have had the chance to make it if I hadn't been photographing her on a Monday. Read on to find out why!

Time. Time? Time!

I find that there is never enough time in a photo session to accomplish everything I want, so I have to limit my goals.

In fact, one of the challenges I've faced is deciding when I will photograph a maiko or geiko, and for how long. Is the afternoon better than the evening? Should my sessions last for 2, 3, or even 4 hours? Is there an ideal day of the week?

My answers to these questions have changed over the years. I used to prefer photographing maiko and geiko from Gion Kobu in the afternoons because I could make some natural-light portraits on the streets of Gion before we went into the ochaya. Now Gion's streets are so crowded and the people with cameras so aggressive that I rarely attempt to photograph outside.

Much of the time, the choices are out of my hands. Most of the maiko and geiko I photograph are very busy, with schedules fully booked months in advance. I usually have to give 2 or 3 options when I want to schedule a photo session, and I rarely get my first choice.

Unless it is a Monday.

Mondays are slow days everywhere

Tanewaka was a popular maiko in her day, so booking a session with her was often a challenge. To eliminate a series of phone calls back and forth about what days she was or wasn't available, I gave Monday, February 6 as my first choice.

Not many people like Mondays, so they are a relatively slow day in Kyoto's geisha districts as they are in most places. I was hoping Tanewaka would be available, and she was. I booked her from 6:00 - 9:00 p.m.

As always, I asked about the color of her kimono. I was told it was too hard to describe over the phone. It was pink, and purple, and a mixture of many other colors. I would just have to wait to see it.

Since color harmonies are crucial to my work, this kind of answer used to frustrate me. I barely have enough time during a photo session as it is, so I don't want to squander precious moments deciding on my background color once a maiko or geiko has already arrived.

Atypically, I wasn't too concerned with the color of Tanewaka's kimono that day because I had already decided to  photograph her against the fusuma (sliding doors) of the ochaya. Fusuma are almost always a light beige, so they work with almost any color kimono.

My Mojo Isn't Working

When Tanewaka arrived and I finally saw her kimono, it was love at first sight. It was one of the most unique kimono I had ever seen. It still is, years later. And I did understand why it couldn't be described over the phone. I don't think words can do it justice.

In those days, I liked to photograph 3 maiko and geiko in a short period of time, using the same lighting set-ups. Each time I would refine the lighting slightly and build on what worked (or didn't). This is really the only way I know to get better at lighting, through experience and trial and error.

I started photographing Tanewaka against the fusuma. I liked what I was seeing, but I was well aware that background was not complementing the colors of Tanewaka's kimono as well as a different background would have.

You can see one of those images in my Maiko Gallery. It's called Maiko Tanewaka Dancing in February. 

After she finished her first dance, I switched to a different background with different lighting, just as I had with Manaha a week before and Mameharu just 2 days before.

Something was wrong, but I didn't know what. To paraphrase a blues classic, "My mojo wasn't working." And I didn't know why.

Looking back, I do know why now. The problem was that I had just photographed the maiko Mameharu, and it was one of those rare sessions where everything works out perfectly. The clouds part, sun beams split the heavens, and angels are singing. All is right with the world.

I had photographed Mameharu in a beautiful black kimono against an orange background, and literally every kata (form or pose) of the dance Mameharu performed made a beautiful photograph. Up until that point (and maybe still) that was by far the most successful photo session I had ever had. I could do no wrong that evening.

Four of those images of Mameharu appeared in Now a Geisha, and one of them, Maiko Mameharu with Plum Blossoms, is currently in my Music & Dance gallery.

It wasn't that I was doing wrong with Tanewaka. It was just that I had the memory of Mameharu too much in mind since I had just started editing the images the day before. Which led me to feel that my mojo had made itself scarce.

By now it was about 8:00 p.m. I was running out of time. I turned to Tanewaka. There was one chance since it was a Monday...

"Do you have another engagement after this one?" I asked.

She told me she didn't.

Would you like to stay a little longer, another half hour? I'd like to try some different things.

She said she would.

I called down the stairs to my friend, the owner of the teahouse. "T-san, Tanewaka is going to stay until 9:30, okay?"

He had to call Tanewaka's okiya to make sure it was okay, but I knew it would be since she didn't have any other engagements. Usually, when time's up, time's up. The maiko or geiko has to go, no matter what, since they have another appointment already scheduled.

But it was a Monday, and she wasn't busy. Suddenly I loved Mondays!

It took me longer than I would have liked to set up the purple background and change the lighting for the third time that evening. Time was slipping through my fingers. It always is, but I was very aware of it that evening.

I made a few test images and knew I had found my way. The light purple background complemented the colors of Tanewaka's kimono perfectly.

Were those angels singing to me again?

Then I made another head and shoulders portrait, as I always do. It looked good, but I wanted more. I wanted different. I was in a rut. In those days, I almost always made vertical portraits of maiko and geiko. As I was checking the settings on my camera, I saw Tanewaka lean over out of the corner of my eye.

Wait a minute! Stop there! Hold that, please!

And I made the photo that is now on my homepage and here.

And I just played, experimenting with different camera angles I would normally never try, and having Tanewaka angle her head and shoulders in slightly different ways.

You can see another portrait in this series, Maiko Tanewaka with Plum Blossoms, in the Maiko Gallery, too.

I even had enough time to photograph her dancing again, this time with the purple seamless as the background, not the fusuma.

By 9:15 I could tell Tanewaka was running out of steam. So was I. It was time to put down my camera.

We have a little more time, but let's just sit and talk for a few minutes. We've worked hard enough.

It was okay with Tanewaka, and it was okay with me. We enjoyed each other's company in the waning minutes we had left.

For once I had had enough time, thanks to Monday.