Arif Iqball

Glimpses of the Floating World

Outside Japan there is often a misunderstanding about the role of the Geisha and that misunderstanding comes from different literary and movie interpretations/fictionalization by non-Japanese at different points in history. The difficulty also comes from the inability to recognize/accept that female entertainers can exist in cultures without engaging in any form of sexual entertainment.

The historical city of Kyoto, Japan is the true center of this floating world and home to five Kagai (literally flower towns, but specifically, performance districts) where you can see Geishas today. The oldest Kagai dates back to the fifteenth century and the tradition of the Geisha continues in Kyoto in the true manner and spirit as it has historically, where the women take pride in being “women of the mind” versus “women of the body”. By all local/Japanese definitions, these women are living art as well as the pinnacle of Japanese eloquence, good manners, style and elegance and are highly respected in Japanese society as artists. Some of their teachers have been labeled as “Living National Treasures” by the Japanese Government. The “Gei” of the Geisha itself means Art and “sha” means a person. Historically both men and women have been labeled Geisha although that word is seldom used and Geiko and Maiko (Apprentice Geiko) are the more appropriate forms of address.

There has been very little work done to photograph the artistic side of the Geiko and Maiko and my work is an effort to see them as living art and to be able to portray them in both formal and informal settings. Behind the painted face is really a teenager/young woman working very hard through song, dance, music, and witty conversation to make the customers of the tea houses escape from their world of stress to a world of art/humour/relaxation and laughter.

Most of this work was done in Medium Format to enable the viewer to eventually see and feel the larger photograph itself as art and I hope that this broader work can shed a new light to the understanding of the Maiko and Geiko and bring respect to them as artists from the non-Japanese viewer.




Arif Iqball was born in Pakistan in 1964 and has spent a third of his life each in Pakistan, US, and Japan respectively.  His curiosity about the balance between modernity and tradition originally attracted him to Japan and in the process, he completed a Masters Degree in Japanese Studies with an interest in Japanese Literature and the visual aesthetic of old Japanese movies.

An avid travel photographer, he uses a nostalgic lens to find beauty in ordinary life and people and is attracted to traditions and artists who are fading away in this modern world.  When completed, this interim work on the Geiko and Maiko in Kyoto will be presented both as a book, and as an exhibit.

His Japan related photographs have appeared in the Washington Post, Lonely Planet, and in Children books.

He currently lives and works in Tokyo.


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Arif Iqball


47 thoughts on “Arif Iqball – Glimpses of the Floating World”

  1. The single-source light from on high in #2,#12 and #15 makes me think of Caravaggio’s paintings. Western Renaissance style meets Eastern cultural traditions, making something uniquely contemporary. Congratulations!

  2. Absolutely glorious photos…and you do nail the whole Geisha as artwork in a very consciously Japanese style…Congrats! The only thing I would say is the behind the scenes images (like number 11) jar me and perhaps the way to handle them is to shoot those in b/w so as to distinguish front of house to back of house if you like…

    I have always been fascinated by Geisha as my dad spent a long time in Japan when I was only four and he bought back a mini geisha outfit for me…You have done a fantastic job of showing their beauty and artistry…truly beautiful images…

  3. Loathe as I am to further make any comment thread about Jim, that is one of the best comments I’ve ever seen, not just from him but from anybody. Concise, insightful, informative.

    They certainly are pretty pictures and there is nothing wrong with that. I think they are showing the Geishas as they want to be shown, idealized, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that either. It’s a nice show. Not much to ponder, true, but what there is is interesting.

    I was thinking, however, it would be nice to also see someone with a more wack aesthetic take a crack at it. Maybe Arif has more candid photos as well? Anyway, I appreciated the link to Jodi Cobb’s work. High bar, indeed.

    And what would a comment thread be without some criticism of the artist statement. The photos were enough for me to ponder how little I know about Geishas so I used the google and read up on them a bit. Probably would have been a good idea to explain something of the Geisha life and history in the intro as I’m sure most people either have no idea what they are about or have a very wrong idea.

    Nice work all around though.

  4. Arif:

    congratulations on being published by BURN.

    I liked pics #1, 2, 9 (my favorite) and 11, 12, 13….the Horizontal pics work much less well for me, which has to do with both framing and aesthetic, here….

    terrific use of marrying environmental color with the color of kimono in much of the work, which is a terrific visual touch and brings the essay approximate to Japanese scroll paintings…

    in truth, i feel the same as Jim. I actually dont like at all (not about you, but about the notion) of woman as art, in fact, its a lie and although I dont feel you propogate that, I do think pictures such as 9 go a long way to open up the humanity and the young girls lives within this codified aesthetic….we need (for me) to feel not just that they’re ‘art objects’ but actually something richer and more complex….

    As jim said, Jodi’s work on the geisha’s gets toward that by colliding they’re ‘outward’ appearance with the realities of life…

    and lastly, since you also love Japanese films, I would love (if you havent already) seen Hideo Gosha’s film ‘Geisha’….Gosha is one of Japanese cinema’s masters, though much much less known in the West (I love his Wolves)…maybe the way Gosha depicts Geisha (in both The Wolves and The Geisha and in his other films) is what I wish….

    anyway, hope this makes sense…


  5. Seems to me, “high bar” comparisons are not really applicable here.

    Arif’s work is an artistic representation of the illusion that the Geisha culture represents to those it serves. These images actually reflect the elegantly ordered world the geishas provide for their audience.

    Jodi Cobb’s work is more a photojournalistic “making of” presentation, totally different in intent and impact, even though equally fascinating in a different way. The reality behind the illusion, so to speak.

  6. Arif,

    Congratulations! Its great seeing your work here. The edit looks great.
    Where do I pre-order the book?!?!?!

    About the criticism given…well…it makes me think.
    To me Arif has given us his take on the Geisha. Jodi Cobb gave us her take…so what?
    Two totally different animals.
    Like the countless photographers who have shot Brazil to death and then you see “based on a true story”!

    If you want to see the geisha with a bit more grit then you have Cobb if you want something else now there’s Arif.

    Awesome work Arif! can’t wait to see more!

  7. After being over-exposed on Burn as a second-hand weatherman, I’ve been refraining from commenting for a while, but this one is a little too close to home for me to keep my mouth shut.

    First off, to Arif (whom I’ve never heard of until now), congratulations for being published here and bringing a very formal (and commercial) Japanese aesthetic to Burn in saturated color… something of a first. But let me spill a few beans… I spent two decades living in Kyoto, and about 14 years living just down the street from where a lot of these pictures were taken. I knew Peter Macintosh (who I’m willing to bet dollars to doughnuts was your fixer for this project), and in fact I played a small role in helping him get settled into Kyoto back in the mid 1990s. I also know, through mutual friends, Liza Dalby, who quite literally “wrote the book” on Geisha after having lived the life.

    In your bio you talk about wanting to absorb an older Japanese visual aesthetic. The world of Kyoto maiko is all about artifice, and you have completely succeeded in producing exactly the kinds of pictures that the Japanese who make such artifice their business (and passion, let’s be fair) would want you to make, projecting that artifice in the same way any good commercial photographer tries to advertise merchandise for a client. I can easily see these photos being featured in back issues of “Taiyo” or in any of the very slick kimono trade magazines… or used for tourism PR by the Kyoto Visitors’ Bureau. So I can acknowledge you’ve done your homework if your goal is to fit in and be accepted in Japan on Japanese terms as a commercial photographer. After all, we all need to make a living.

    (An aside to Lisa Hogben… there are no ‘behind the scenes’ photos here… they are all very carefully posed and contrived).

    Maybe, Arif, given your base in Japan (and I assume you have some language skills as well), and your obvious technical skill, you could come up with something more interesting, more original, more probing, and more insightful than this posed tourist promotion? I’m afraid I have to agree with the others who think that Jodi Cobb, who after all spoke no Japanese and was more of a ‘parachute journalist’ (I knew one of her fixers, too) got in deeper than you have tried to do.

    (An aside to Bob Black… yes, I too really like Gosha’s film ‘Yokiroh’ which you call ‘The Geisha,’ but I think it is important to recognize that it portrays situations in pre-war Japan, and in Tosa and Osaka at that, quite different from the world of Kyoto maiko today. Still, anyone interested in either geisha or in Japanese visual aesthetics should see this film).

    For those of you not familiar with Japan, I have no wish to spoil your enjoyment of these photos… I acknowledge their technical craft, and I am a big fan of embroidered silk kimono… but the best analogy I can think of about how they look to me is to compare them with photos of ‘cowboys’, horses, and stagecoaches taken at various dude ranches set up for photography clubs where everything is staged (and done over and over again to get the light and the dust just right).

    Here’s a problem to ponder… what is exotic and unfamiliar to some may be overworked cliche to someone who is quite familiar with the context in which the pictures are taken. That may be true for most of what we see in the world of photography…

  8. Congrats Arif, the portraits are amazing! The color is flawless and so is the lighting. These images remind me of paintings that my grandfather brought back from Japan years ago. I took a look at your website and I saw that you also did this project in B&W as well. I can’t decide which I like more but I think I’m leaning towards the B&W but that could be me?

    This is a subject that we have seen photographed a lot but you have taken that challenge and shown us a new look or is a more traditional view. I hope that you continue with this project and take it even further. Have you seen the portrait of the Geisha in the film Samsara, it’s done on video but the camera is kept on the Geisha for a while and she is filled with emotion. I would say get in closer and get more emotion as you continue this project.

    Wonderful work I look forward to seeing more from you!

  9. just looked at the B/W version (thanks Sarah for the head’s up)….yes, the b/w version works powerfully with the ‘voice’ of the version…and some wonderful pics (not included here) in that B/W series as well….nice to see both versions Arif…as they conjure 2 very different orientations for the viewer and the content/intent…

    Sidney: yup :))….

  10. The photos are beautiful. The photographer does not need to aim for the Jodi Cobb bar. Arif produced a work of beauty and elegance. Did it clear up any misunderstandings I might have of Geisha or give me deep insight into the lives of these women? No. No more than beautiful fashion photography in the west gives me of the lives of the models pictured. The pictures did cause me to ponder a bit, though, to wonder about the real lives of these perfectly coifed and adorned women, with no real answers.

    It is a work of beauty. I compliment Arif for having created it.

  11. i am very familiar with Jodi’s Geisha and for sure she did a masterwork of PHOTOJOURNALISM…

    yet i see no comparison with these photographs by Arif except of course same subject..i agree with Gerhard…not comparable imo…the whole point of Jodi’s work was to get “behind the scenes” and she surely did…Arif was going for something totally different and yes for sure “set” on the stage of their lives….

    for me , “behind the scenes” situations are often over rated in their value…great for a magazine or newspaper or whatever, yet for a long term look on your bookshelf or coffee table i am not so sure….

    i do not “ponder” a drunk Japanese businessman fondling a geisha more than a fine tableau….sometimes the “set piece” for me at least is IT…especially with this subject…

    i guess it depends on what you want to see in photographs…or perhaps it is just me finally tired of basic 1, 2, 3 photoJ which reached its peak 30-50 years ago in Life Magazine….

    in any case, Jodi’s Geisha is on my table for what it is , and so will Arif’s Floating World should it become a book…i am imagining an elegant edition that would be befitting the subject…an art object that would be placed alongside other objects of art in the long geisha tradition…..

    cheers, david

  12. It is perhaps unfortunate that I compared Arif’s work to Jodi Cobb’s (although her name had already been brought up in the discussion), because that does indeed inevitably suggest a comparison with a photojournalistic approach, which is not really the essence of what I was trying to get at and has maybe sidetracked the discussion. Personally, my lukewarm reaction to Arif’s photos is not about that… and I tried to balance my ‘critique’ with an acknowledgement of what I found skillful and well done in the photos…

    And maybe I should have recused myself from the discussion anyway, since while I lived on the periphery of the main maiko/geisha-house area of Kyoto for many years, often strolled through the neighborhood, and from time to time encountered maiko or geisha on the backstreets, in the parks, at festivals, and occasionally at parties, it was never a world that I had any desire to enter any more deeply into, even if I could have afforded to, and I never seriously tried to photograph any of it. And I have to agree that viewed conventionally and traditionally, it is a topic that lends itself visually to set pieces, which I am not against in principle.

    However, over the years, I’ve seen a whole lot of photos and prints of geisha, and many other traditional features of Kyoto’s and Japan’s culture as well, and Arif’s style in most of these does not deviate in any way from the very manicured and conventional image of geisha as they have been portrayed in the commercial world of Japanese magazines, advertising, and tourism promotion. David may be tired of Photojournalism 1, 2, and 3 with good reason…. I have been jaded by over-exposure to commercial Japanese tourism photography 1, 2, and 3… And the major point I was trying to make was that these photos look different to someone who has seen quite a lot of similar images and knows something about the world they come out of. The one photo in this group that I really like is No. 5 which is not as typical a composition as the others… it is still a contrived and posed set piece, but the composition is interesting, the light is quite interesting and used to good effect, and there is a three dimensional environmental depth which is also unusual in this genre of geisha images. The other photos simply look all too familiar to me, though as I said before I think they are well done and faithful examples of this style and are pretty pictures that anyone who wants to should feel free to enjoy.

    Maybe it is unfair to Arif to ask anything more… and clearly in this forum he is the crowd-pleaser and I am the odd man out… but to me it seems a shame that someone with this much technical skill buys into the Japanese stereotypes and puts his efforts into reproducing them without trying to move beyond. That refers both to the subject (maiko/geisha) and also the treatment. I’m not suggesting photojournalistic treatment… there are many, many other ways to break away from convention, and I really wish more people would approach Japan in original ways. But I realize there is a difference between being a classical musician, a jazz musician, or a sound-environment avant garde musician, and if someone chooses to devote themselves to classical music and its conventions, that is their choice and a perfectly valid one.

  13. I don’t know, David. I don’t see these photos as any more “new” or “creative” than “50 year old photojournalism.” They are technically good. But they look like many other photos of geishas I’ve seen. Stereotypes, in fact, of very good technical quality. An observation platform, not a bridge.

  14. I would like to thank David for the inspiration to do this work and to the Burn team for giving me an opportunity to show my project. Thank you all as well for your wonderful comments which force me to think deeper behind this project. Being a bit early in the discussion, I wanted to limit my response to let newer viewers form their own opinions, but still want to engage the current audience and respond to the few different thoughts that are emerging.

    Gerhard, Thanks for totally understanding the difference between my effort and the photojournalistic work of Jodi Cobb (as well as numerous other Japanese photographers (e.g. H. Mizobuchi) before and after her who have documented everything possible that can be done about the process and behind the scenes but some chose not to show all publicly since they live here). The fact is that the process is where I also started but quickly felt that my effort should be on something different and which can also be accepted by the Geisha community itself as representing them in good light and with dignity, respect and beauty – standards they personally aim for and which are a good balance between imagination and reality, and which will evolve over time as I mature. Another key difference (though perhaps not relevant to this discussion) is that earlier work looks loosely at women who call themselves Geisha in other parts of the country versus 90% of my work focuses on the Gion district in Kyoto and represents the Maiko/Geiko elite, where the lines are clear between women of the mind/artists and women of the body and hence the level of professionalism is extremely high.

    The choice of medium format was deliberate to allow this work to be enlarged and displayed anywhere and required work that did not invade the comfort level/privacy of the subject. This respect for privacy in any culture builds trust which allows one to go in deeper and build bonds which also open doors for the future/future photographers to come in. I also believe in a line that needs to be drawn – displaying private photographs (e.g. bathing scenes) in public for an artist (Geisha) whose livelihood depends on being considered private, elegant, and refined is not my aim to duplicate since that is a win for the photographer but is harmful for the subject and breaks down trust/closes future doors. The Geisha do not need the exposure a photographer gives them but survives based on how her customers view her.

    Sidney, thank you as well for sharing your own life experiences and assumptions and for the compliments on the execution of the concept. I could see on your website some of the images that you did when you were in Japan. Thank you also for your dollars or donuts which I will take since I have not formally met Peter Macintosh (being fluent in Japanese as well as having a respected day job helps build trust). I did refer extensively to Liza Dalby’s book about her life in the Pontocho district (and respect her) when I was doing my homework but also realize that the book was a world of thirty years ago, and now these women have more options and a few of them even have their own TV shows/commercials. I think the challenge you pose is a very good one and I will strive to meet your expectations in the future as the vision gets refined.

    Bob and Sarah, thank you for your comments which I am trying to digest and am still thinking of how to best reply/portray since that also is a different balance of reality/imagination and perhaps starts entering the world of Manga where one can have both. Just like an executive wears a suit to go to work, a geisha wears her own uniform but both are working and is there really an extreme contrast in their work and private lives, or is it just a way of living? Just like for the executive, emotion at work is unprofessional, the same rules apply to the Geisha and especially in a society where professionalism is extremely sacred. The richness and complexity of their characters comes out in person through wit and the art of entertainment – walking into a room full of strangers and changing the atmosphere within the two hours they are working there. Please give me a little more time to best answer this in my photographs.

    Thank you Paul, John, Jeff, Lisa, Imants, Jim, mw, Carlo, Harry, Candy, and Frostfrog for taking the time to comment. I really appreciate your thoughts and welcome more. Burn is a great place to share and learn. Thank you again David!

  15. Arif, great to see your work here. I do appreciate it for what it is. The beauty of the mask, even the superficial, which we all wear at one time or another. It does cause me to ponder what’s underneath. But I don’t have to see it to wonder about it. For now I’d rather imagine it. The beauty you show us allows me to imagine the darkness. Whether or not such darkness exists doesn’t matter.

  16. ARIF,

    From your replies above it is clear that you have a generosity of spirit and are a gentleman. I apologize for making an incorrect assumption about Peter M., and should we ever meet, I owe you a drink at least. My critique in general however still stands, and I hope to see your educated eyes and obvious skills put to other projects in the future. I will try not to presume too much, but I think I do understand some of the pressures and temptations, as well as opportunities, of living and working in Japan, and Kyoto in particular, and I have some sympathy for your situation. My own pictures of Kyoto are personal sentimental relics of a past era when I was a very casual, amateur, and unschooled photographer, and are not to be compared to yours in sophistication or technical quality. I wish you all the best, and look forward to seeing what you do next.

  17. like the last 5 images ..the rest is quite boring imho…. find the medium format aspect is quite pointless for an online slideshow ….

  18. Arif, Congratulations on publication on Burn!

    beautiful works.

    I love the silence through photos… and floating petals of sakura…

    Thank you!

  19. ARIF :)

    thanks for your thoughtful and considerate reply. I’m always happy when photographers chime in, for what else do we have if not conversation to pick and prick and rope all of us forward :). Just a point of clarification. Please know that I also was NOT comparing your work to Jodi’s (completely different intents between what your project is about and what Jodi’s documentary work was about). what I was trying to suggest (albeit, especially for me) a bit quickly as I was literally running to teach. I’m not interested in you ‘documenting’ the life of Maiko, but something else: how to undercut the ‘lie’ or rather the veil of the ‘performance/art’ aspect of their presentation: that these are actually complex young woman and that Geisha is both a visually and emotionally complex (and certainly much more complex that most westerners imagine) life/role/job, etc. I really love so many of the pictures (i stated which ones in my first comment) and many of the B/w are also gorgeous and get, actually, closer to what I’m hinting at :). I kind of non-postcard postcard…or rather, something a bit, um, fleshier. I’ll give you an example.

    Araki, throughout his photographic life, has dealt with Kimono/geisha iconography is completely fucked up and mad-beautiful ways, opening both the sexuality (explicit) and the use of bondage. The imagery totally fucks up the viewer and questions both the tradition (that its just cold, perfect art as entertainment) and the viewer’s expectation (why be entertained in such a manner, what really does the participant want, etc). Amazing and exciting and wickedly playful and shocking (at the time when he first started shooting young girls in kimono, or maiko’s or older geisha, etc)…..

    I dont mean to suggest at all to go that route (you are a different type of photographer with a different sensibility by far). I mean: how to transform your experience with these young woman and their role and how you react to that visually (you’ve got a great eye for light and composition) to something that, maybe doesn’t quite give the viewer answers (here is what they look like) but asks the viewer questions….like i said 9 does that, adn some of the b/w too…

    anyway, hope that makes sense? :))…i’m reluctant to suggest, only to point out that good photography (and youre a terrific photographer) and good stories/projects, in the end, leave us more with questions I think…

    i look forward to seeing how this goes forward :))

    and congrats again Arif :))


  20. Virgil, Thank you very much for your comment and support. I think individuals like us approach masks according to their own state of mind/character, some are happy at just seeing the happy face and some look for deeper feelings (assuming they exist). The customers come to escape their own reality/harsh working environment into a world where they can be boys and no one is judging them. The Maiko and Geiko create the environment and allow that to happen and all the time being a very attentive host and their only focus is to see a happy customer regardless of whether he will come back or not.

    Sidney, Thank you very much for the comments and I am happy to get to know you. Hope you will revisit Japan one of these days and we can talk in person. It would be great to learn from your experiences since things must have been at very basic stages for foreigners when you were here and you must have also made a lot of effort to get accepted in a place like Kyoto.

    Vivek, thank you for taking the time to comment. I am happy that you like the last five pictures.

    Imants, thank you and I respect the fact that you are in a totally different league than myself. I wish I could understand at your level so that I could learn another language of expression.

    Kyunghee, Thank you. I really like your new book. You have such a unique look to your images that I always look for them and smile when I see that it is you.

    Bob, thank you very much for the link to Tewfic’s page (which I was not aware of) and thank you very much also for taking the time to elaborate which helped my understanding and will help me evolve. It is interesting that as time has progressed, I find myself (actually not only myself but also my wife) getting drawn in more and more into this world almost to the point of addiction. My first personal exposure to the Geisha were purely coincidental but the image of a beautiful young maiko in her beautiful kimono walking home in the side streets of Gion on a spring night and the sound of her wooden shoes mixed with the sounds of the little bells around her feet as she walked away was simply unforgettable. That photograph in extremely low light is still one of the most true feelings of my Geisha pictures since the world of the Maiko and Geiko starts at 6:00 PM and continues till 1:00 (curfew time for the Maiko in Gion) and during the time they will go to two-three tea houses for dinner and entertainment and unless one is inside, it is impossible to get them to stop and be photographed.

    During the first three months of this project, my wife and I both moved to Kyoto and lived within walking distance of both Gion and Miyagawa-cho and so could see these young ladies walk to and from work on a daily basis. Being a foreigner who always asked permission to photograph them in Japanese (versus the tourists snapping away) brought out a few smiles and slowly one started recognizing the faces (make-up is only when working/entertaining) and relationships developed. In this all female world, I strongly feel that I was helped by the fact that I was with my wife all the time and the younger Maiko called her “Older Sister”. Getting feedback from them and their house mother on the pictures I gave them helped me understand the nuances as they see them (e.g. you never should show this picture because you can see a little bit of my leg, or the fact that different hairstyles were only for specific events etc) and I learned how every little change in their looks was an opportunity for them to reconnect with customers (e.g. hair ornaments change monthly and one can tell exactly which month a picture was taken by looking at it). So in a way, my early photos were heavily influenced by how they saw the pictures themselves.

    As time evolved, I started working with different local photographers to see how these long time regulars approached the Maiko and Geiko. Two “teachers” have been extremely influential in my photographs (and getting me early access) but have very contrasting styles where one is very traditional and one is different by Japanese standards so I was evolving somewhere in between but learning within the Japanese “sense” of how the picture should be (e.g. “A Maiko is playful/like a girl versus a Geiko is elegant/sensual so the photograph should reflect that”). As you can probably guess, I have a fairly extensive set of pictures in a variety of situations, some natural, some posed, some very serious, some very playful. As Sidney mentioned earlier, there is a strong sense of balancing one’s image in Japan and at this stage, I will respect the privacy of the individuals. The challenge for me is to be able to show that individuality more in the photograph even if video is a better medium. I will think deeper on how to best approach so thank you for the challenge.

    Brian/Gordon – Thank you very much for the compliments.

    I truly appreciate all the comments. Please keep them coming.

  21. Arif unfortunately the subject of your image making that you have chosen has all that “isn’t is beautiful” connotations about it. Maybe there is a need to select an aspect about the ” Geisha world” maybe there is a need for you to to think about what is in their heads not how they appear.

  22. Very nice writing, Arif, hopefully you’ll do a lot more of it in your book. Hate to be repetitive, but it seems you assume people have pretty deep knowledge of what Geishas are, which I’m pretty sure is not the case. Certainly not in the U.S. where most people would probably think they are prostitutes if they were to ever think about them at all. I’ve now read up a bit and am still not entirely clear on the concept. Entertainers? Hostesses? How do they entertain? Presumably there’s more to it than looking pretty in front of a pretty background? If you’re not going to show, I think it might be helpful to tell.

    Continuing the repetition, I don’t think portraying people as they want to be seen is necessarily a bad thing, but there are usually some serious pitfalls if one is interested in making something other than purely decorative art. Not that there’s anything wrong with purely decorative art, either. If that’s what you are about, that’s fine, but you run into Sydney’s critique, the first one, that asks what separates this work from a, say, calendar. Note that I am not making that particular critique, but I do think it’s one that needs to be answered (not publicly of course, but for yourself). Perhaps there’s something in your apparently deep knowledge in the level of detail they go to to be successful at what they do? I think you’ve probably captured something of that already. But it may be something you want to ponder further.

  23. To Imants point, which is what I originally meant to comment on: I’m guessing that a lot of what is in their heads is thinking about how they appear. Arif seems to be saying something similar. I think perhaps the answer to getting past Sydney’s critique is showing that kind of depth in the photos. They already communicate something along those lines or we probably wouldn’t be seeing them here.

  24. It is possible that some depth (as well as more of an understanding for the uninformed) could also be added by showing interaction scenes between these artists and their clients that reflect the historically honorable peaceful and playful sheltered world that is provided.

    The current work concentrates on what is seen by the men for whom this exists, both from their point of view and reflecting the historically stringent formal artistic requirements.

    Whether Arif wants to expand his work in this way, totally up to him …

  25. On the other hand, this would push it into the realm of photojournalism.

    The imagination is more alive when there is little explanation or elucidation.

    Stage photography doesn’t traditionally include the audience either …

  26. MW

    i have searched high and low for single photographers who have depicted geisha…sure lots of pictures of geisha’s on Google yet nary a single one man band approach, except of course for Jodi’s Geisha…so in terms of a “one person” look there isn’t really much…

    i think oftentimes people expect five different approaches in one essay or what i call a portfolio in this case….Arif has simply done ONE THING….why isn’t one thing enough? of course there is always another way, but do all of the individual ways need to be an encyclopedia?

    i think we all have ADD…me too…we skip around with a lot of pots on the back burner…unfinished ideas….not completed thoughts….a bit of this and a bit of that….we want this and then we want that….we buy a red umbrella and then immediately wish we had bought a blue one…and sometimes here i see in the critiques a jumping around of wanting each thing to be everything….

    Arif of the few who stops.

    paid attention ..TO ONE THING…DONE….

    no small task in my opinion….it is what i try so hard to get my students to do and myself to do as well…SIMPLIFY…..look at great movies, great sculpture, great painting, great opera…all simple easy to understand story or mood….the “story” of Macbeth can be told in two sentences…not complex..we do not need to know everything about Lady Macbeth and her life, we need only know ONE THING…..

    the “diagram” of the greatest art and stories ever told is generally pretty damn comprehensive…

    HOW the story get told, either as document or as art is THE THING…

    Arif shows geisha as i am sure they want to be seen..THEY are the ART…”merely decorative”? i would submit that on this cold cruel planet that the level of “decorative” within the world of geisha would be among the most artistically intrinsic upper level values around…there are others of course..yet worth being done even if there are individual pictures out there that might look similar to Arif, alas only Arif has actually put then all together under one roof so to speak…

    so in summary i would say let Arif do THIS and let somebody else do THAT….OR after Arif does “this”, he can later do “that”, yet i think he dies artistically if he tries to do both or more simultaneous….

    Arif has articulated his own case very very well imo…..

    See you soonest in New York Michael…always fun to banter with you….

    cheers, david

  27. Arif :))

    thanks so much for you thoughtful reply (god, how i wish more photographers who publish here try to jump in and chat, i did when published long ago, and it was both enjoyable and beneficial (for my own thinking, reactions etc)…

    Anyway, LOVE that you’ve offered some anecdotal info to your experience, again so important i think (though of course unnecessary) to add insight and reflection for viewer. One of the reasons I enjoy looking at work at BURN is just that: the opportunity for photographers (young/emerging folk and ummm, emerged folk ;))) to share and to discuss. It has always seemed to me the most important aspects of the BURN mission (other than to share photography and promote photographers) was the educational/existential experience of making pictures. It so important. I really value that you’ve taken the time, and had the patience, to provide both the thinking behind your process and project but also the actually experience of choice making and evolution. :))…..

    Nothing more to add, really, except something that’s pretty cliched: The most difficult thing it seems to me for young photographers (and old ones too) is to remember a very simple thing: find and EMBRACE who you are as a person and as a photographer, that will define the project and the way your work and gather. I like that your project seems steeped and formed in the way you manage to think and to experience the world around you, rather than trying a bit of this and a bit of that. Once one figures out who they are as a photographer, than they simply run with that and allow that to deepen. What is nice to read in your statements, and is clear in the work, is a ‘belief’ in it, and that is so important. We never stop trying to challenge ourselves and expand, but that is different than belief. Enjoyed your responses very much…

    and one last think. The story of the geisha walking down the street with the wooden shoes and the bell…that reminds me of one of my favorite parts from Chris Marker’s incredible film ‘Sans Soleil’ (btw, please folk, dont think i’m comparing Arif’s work with Marker’s, hahahahahahahah :))…just i wanted to share a scened…kimono’d dancers dancing in the street (they’re not geisha, but, well, same beautiful moment)….

    good luck Arif. look forward to seeing more.

    the dancing sequence is at 10:00


  28. I would find and embrace who I am as a person and a photographer, but I’m sure I wouldn’t like myself as either a person or a photographer so I’m just going to skip this altogether and go buy some yogurt. I don’t actually like yogurt either, but I’m trying to lose a few pounds and as yogurting is both low calorie and low cost, it’s my go-to diet. I especially recommend the Oikos Key Lime yogurt; it’s pale green and people tell me that pastel food is good for me. This sounds scientifically unsound to me, but the woman who told me this is a good friend and you don’t keep good friends friendly by telling them that their cherished beliefs are a load of toads’ gonads.

  29. I’m guessing that a lot of what is in their heads is thinking about how they appear…… mw you sure are not giving them much credit as people I am sure that they also question what they are doing,how their roles relate to other aspects of Japanese life today etc

  30. Thank you all for the engaging dialogue and please allow me to give you my thoughts on what I think goes on inside the head of the Maiko and Geiko: In Japan when one practices the martial arts (or in the West when one is practicing the Piano etc.), one repeats the movements again and again till they become second nature and one can do them without thinking. What is important is that the technique is perfected and what is important is that the technique of the masters (rules) be repeated exactly as they would have done it hundreds of years ago. The world of the Geisha is no different where she perfects the art of being a Geisha and she does it without thinking – her focus is to follow the rules and perfect her style. The linguistic rules dictate how she speaks and she adjusts the politeness level according to the person she is talking to, the hierarchy rules dictate who she addresses first and then second, the dance rules dictate the movements and over time (unless the student resigns/retires) the student evolves into the Master.

    The journey of the Geisha starts when they are around 12 and the first few years, they are watching their elder sisters and learning (each is assigned an elder teacher to guide her and who will introduce her to people/manners/way of the Geisha). Once a certain skill in performance (dance/music) is achieved (usually around age 15-16), they can then move on to become a Maiko and start entertaining customers. The process is that the tea house will arrange for the Maiko to come and entertain the customers for a 2-3 hour period. If the Maiko is very inexperienced, the Lady/owner of the tea house is present to help along the younger Maiko who will in her naive ways be cute/funny and will talk to the customers and take care of them (serving tea/beer.) The customers will either ask for a dance performance or play silly games to relax/have fun and when the time is up, the Maiko moves on to another tea house and repeats. The Maiko is trying to learn how to behave (a different sense of responsibility) and how to adjust to different personalities as well as learning new dance/music to be able to perform. Usually the dance/music program changes every month and they have a repertoire of 12-15 dances. Throughout the year there are addition/formal performances where they will perform with their older/more experienced sisters and gain more confidence. Usually around the age of 20, she has enough confidence and skill and will then become a full fledged geisha and start cultivating her own customers. Once she has repaid her debt to the house she belongs, she can move out and live on her own but till then, she lives in the house she belongs to. A geisha never retires but has to leave if she gets married.

    There are also practical reasons to have a Maiko around e.g. if two company Presidents are having a confidential conversation, someone still has to serve them tea and be available to take care of things in the room and the young girl is non-threatening plus sometimes can break the ice.

    The Gion district now has less than 20 Maiko and many do not make it into the role of a full fledged Geisha. For some, the pressure is quite high because they feel they are not living up to the expectations of their teachers, for some the spotlight is too much, and for some, it is tough to be able to manage all the rules in this modern world. I have been fortunate to have photographed almost all of them and some I have had extensive time with. I am very impressed that even as teenagers, their level of professionalism is so high and especially compared to other Japanese youth who even till a later stage in life do not have a focus. Many of the maiko do not start out beautiful but as one of the house mothers told me, “they become beautiful because every one is watching them and they need to live up to the expectations”.

    Just a side note on one of the pictures – #8. The black kimono is the most formal of the kimonos and worn just a few times during the year. In this picture (which is the only one done without natural light) one can see the yellow grains of rice in her hair. This picture is very symbolic of a New year picture when she will take three kernels and give them to a favorite customer who will keep them as a good luck charm. As Napolean said, “men will die for a medal of honor” and for many customers, it is a privilege to be able to receive these.

    Bob, thank you very much for the link to the video. I love watching the dance which is called Awaodori and in Summer, thousands of people of all ages line up the streets of Tokyo and dance in their Yukatas (summer kimonos). The first time I saw the dance, I was so impressed – when was the last time one danced on the street with one’s grandmother?

    David, I think you once said “I have to declare to myself that where I am is the best picture”. I also interpreted that as it is OK to walk away from other pictures and just focus on what you want to get.

    Gordon – Sometimes a picture in my head is B&W and sometimes it is color – I just selected them accordingly.

    Thank you all for your comments and please feel free to ask if there are any questions.

  31. David, I think you’re responding much more to Sydney’s critique than anything I had to say. Mainly, I was responding to Sydney’s critique and going a bit beyond it to discuss larger photo issues, not taking a particular position on these photos beyond liking them and wanting to get more background from the text. Sydney makes a very incisive critique and I think if one feels the need to defend Arif’s work, that’s what should be addressed. I’m more interested in the questions it raises and the strategies for dealing with them than the attack/defend dichotomy.

    Perhaps thats because I think a lot about the questions about presenting people how they want to be presented and the value of purely decorative art because, regarding the latter, a lot of what I do is purely decorative art and I have to justify that to myself and, regarding the former, the question of how certain people want to be presented and what that means the context of a photo essay is the core theme of one of my biggest projects.

    As for decorative art, the question is not whether the Geishas themselves are art or decorative art, it’s about Arif’s depiction of them. I think the depth of knowledge Arif shows in his responses indicates that his work is far deeper than the commercial photogs creating adverts and calendars against whom Sydney wails. How to communicate that artfully in a photo book is the challenge, and what I find interesting about the discussion.

    My thinking on presenting people how they want to be presented, which is typically both literally and figuratively in the best light possible, is that for that to work, the audience has to know something that the subjects don’t, or that the subjects don’t want the audience to know. I suspect that some kind of disconnect along those lines is what this work needs to effectively rebut Sydney’s criticisms. I’m not saying that it’s not there. The more Arif fleshes out the text in his comments, the more I think I see it.

  32. Pingback: Congratulations to Maiko Satuski-san – The Young Star of Gion » Arif's Journeys

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