Most of my photography can be divided into images of the Floating World and images of the Sorrowful World.
Both terms come from the Japanese word ukiyo, the Floating World. The more commonly known meaning of ukiyo refers to the world of fleeting pleasures found in the entertainment districts of Edo Period Japan, the most famous being the Yoshiwara in Tokyo. The denizens of these “nightless cities,” tayū, oiran, geisha, and kabuki actors, were often portrayed in ukiyo-e, pictures of the Floating World.
The Floating World
I have been captivated by kabuki, ukiyo-e, and other aspects of Japanese culture since I first encountered them in college, where I majored in religion with a focus in Japanese Buddhism.
Although “licensed districts” like the Yoshiwara no longer exist in modern Japan, there are still five geisha districts or hanamachi in Kyoto. The hanamachi are tiny worlds of traditional culture almost untouched by time, and geiko (the term for geisha in Kyoto) and maiko (apprentice geiko) continue to dance and entertain at parties in teahouses as they have for more than a hundred years.
I did not discover geisha and maiko until 2002, when I moved to a city just outside of Kyoto, but I have been photographing them ever since and both my photography of them and relationships with them have evolved greatly over the past seventeen years.
I typically work with a maiko or geiko for about three years, so our collaborations naturally deepen with time. In my portraits I try to reveal the subtle shades of emotion and sparks of personality that make everyone unique and that I would miss if I did not know these women as well as I do.
Some of my images are consciously in the style of woodblock prints, and I consider them to be ukiyo-sha or “ukiyo-e photographs.” These images feature very soft shadows and brightly colored backgrounds, much like the prints of Utamaro and Yoshitoshi, whose images of geisha and other beautiful women featured vibrant colors and absolutely no shadows.
On the other hand, my favorite painters are Georges de La Tour and Gerrit van Honthorst, both known for their nocturnal paintings lit only by candlelight. Although this much more dramatic lighting with a strong contrast between light and shadows does not always work in photographs of geiko and maiko, with the right geiko or maiko in a certain pose, the results are quite striking.
After publishing 4 books along the course of 12 years, I have already assembled enough material for at least two more, which will come in good time.
I now find myself in uncharted territory, a magnificent place to be! I no longer have any goals when it comes to photographing geiko and maiko, except to enjoy and experiment.
The Sorrowful Word
The second meaning of ukiyo, the Sorrowful World, refers to the world of impermanence and loss felt after the fleeting pleasures of the entertainment districts have vanished with the dawn, leaving only phantoms and memories.
In 2004 I started photographing Kyoto’s temples, festivals, and Buddhist icons, particularly Jizō, the protector of children and travelers. I believe that Kyoto’s most famous temples have been photographed into cliché, so I sought out lesser and barely known temples, places where I would rarely see anyone, let alone a crowd of tourists.
In a corner of some of these temples or even behind them, I would occasionally find crumbling Jizō, apparently abandoned and forgotten. These decaying statues were more powerful and poignant to me than the more charming Jizō I usually found in front of the temples or on altars inside them.
I had stumbled unknowingly into the other world of ukiyo, the Sorrowful World of impermanence where nothing lasts. Beauty and colors fade, and youth eventually withers into old age. Even stone cracks and crumbles with the passage of time.
I started my search for these decaying Jizō in Kyoto, but in recent years I have expanded my exploration to include Osaka, Tokyo, and other parts of Japan. These crumbling Jizō are extremely rare finds. There are about 200 geiko and maiko in Kyoto’s five hanamachi right now, but I believe there are about the same number of Jizō I would like to photograph in all of Japan. As a result, I cherish my Jizō images just as much, if not more so, than my images of geiko and maiko.
Of course, the Floating and Sorrowful Worlds exist everywhere, not just in the geisha districts and Buddhist temples. I am always seeking out signs of both where ever life takes me, my camera a companion that is always close by.
Note to the reader: I have not mentioned the names of any maiko and geiko in this overview for the sake of brevity.
For details about my encounters with all the geiko and maiko I have photographed, from Satomi and Yukako more than fifteen years ago to Yuriha and Tatsuha now, please visit my blog and search using the woman's name as a keyword.