A unique and captivating photography exhibition is now open at the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands, quite far removed from our island scenery and culture, and sure to enchant visitors with its vibrant colors and its peek into a usually private and mysterious world.

The exhibition in the Dart Auditorium and Community Gallery features photos from John Davies’s photographic publication, “Kosen.”

The photographs follow the journey of the book’s namesake, Kosen, as she undertakes a 5-year apprenticeship from maiko (apprentice geisha) to geisha in Kyoto, Japan, and have already been showcased in the Leica Store in Miami. They show Kosen in full maiko attire in various Kyoto locations, and provide a glimpse into the preparations for her geisha ceremony.

The photos have already won praise, with Benedict Brain, editor of Digital Camera magazine, calling “Kosen” “a delight to the senses;” Dr. Titus Boeder of Maggs Bros Ltd. saying it “defines the elegance and artifice of the geisha-world;” and Oscar-winning film director Arnold Scwartzman calling it an “indelible photographic work of art.”

While the photos have been in situ and available for public viewing since Friday, Nov. 4, the exhibition officially runs from Nov. 9, with a grand opening Nov. 16, and continues until Dec. 4

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John Davies

Davies left school at 14 years old, already knowing he wanted to pursue photography. Despite the small number of photography studios in his small Cotswolds town, he managed to secure an apprenticeship where he would begin to learn the tools of the trade, from the bottom up.

“As an apprentice, they would make you sweep floors, make chemicals, load glass plates into slide holders … all of the dirty jobs,” explained Davies, who also had to work a second job to make ends meet. “I really did learn a lot though, about all aspects of photography. You could really get behind the scenes, and meet people you would never usually meet.”

After two years of apprenticeship, Davies made a quick stop in a fashion studio in Soho, London, before deciding he wanted to travel. He saw a job advertisement in the British Journal of Photography for a ship’s photographer on a ship bound for South America, and at 18 years old, he set off on his adventure.

This step would be the beginning of a lifelong career, as he now owns The Image Group, the largest cruise ship photography company in the world, and has been living in Cayman where the company is based, since 1982. His love of travel has also stayed with him.

Being able to experience this mysterious tradition, which goes back to the 18th century, is a privilege for an outsider, and the traditional kimonos, white makeup and wigs are a photographer’s dream.

Japan and Kosen

Davies’s love affair with Japan began over 25 years ago when he began visiting the country for business, and on those early visits he became friendly with his driver, Katoh-san, who would obligingly take him to areas not on the tourist trail. After 10 years of regular visits, and with a now extensive library of Japanese photos, Davies asked Katoh if he could photograph a geisha. “Next time you are here,” was the reply.

“In Japanese society, they let you in very slowly,” said Davies.

But Katoh was true to his word and on Davies’s next visit he began to take photos of 15-year-old Kosen who was a geisha in training, or maiko. Her apprenticeship would take five years, learning music, dancing and conversation skills and Davies would photograph Kosen over this course of the apprenticeship, whenever he was in Japan.

Being able to experience this mysterious tradition, which goes back to the 18th century, is a privilege for an outsider, and the traditional kimonos, white makeup and wigs (“maikos are allowed to use their own hair but once a geisha must use a wig,” explained Davies) are a photographer’s dream.

Davies would photograph Kosen in small temples and gardens around Kyoto, often planning his business trips to Japan for scenic times of year such as the cherry blossom season, to ensure beautiful shots. “Kosen did not speak English so we used hand signals to communicate,” said Davies, who built a strong photographic relationship with his subject over the years. “It’s all about trust,” he explained, “You must respect the culture and work with it.”

The pinnacle of the geisha apprenticeship is the erikae ceremony, and Davies was allowed to attend, along with only a handful of others, while a crowd of photographers waited outside.

“As a foreigner, I was really lucky to be able to take photographs during the ceremony. It was the first time that I was allowed behind the scenes,” said Davies. “Other than me, only Kosen’s family and the people involved with the ceremony were allowed to witness the preparation.” This privilege was due to the rapport Davies had built up over the last five years.

The preparations for the ceremony were ceremonial in themselves. “It’s amazing how much time is spent on detail,” said Davies, likening it to three times as intricate as a wedding, and noting that he has not seen this attention in any other cultures.

The making of the book

Davies presented the idea for the book to Leica Japan who loved it. Time was spent finding writers and translators and then work began, taking three years to complete the book which was printed in March of this year.

The result is a work of art in itself, with a re-usable plastic sleeve to protect it. It is further encased in a textile black slip-on book jacket.

A beautiful and authentic touch is the use of exposed binding which allows the pages to lay flat and is also a nod to Japanese book binding techniques. “The book is about touch as well as being visual,” Davies said of the binding and book sleeve.

As for the future, it seems that immersing himself in maiko and geisha tradition for five years was not enough for Davies, who would love to continue to focus on Kosen now that she is a geisha, this time with a black and white photo study.

The Kosen exhibition at the National Gallery runs until Dec. 4, with a grand opening on Nov 16.

‘Kosen’ is for sale at the Photographers’ Gallery in London, the Miami Leica Store, and at the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands, for US$45. The gallery will also be selling limited edition prints of the photographs, on inkjet art paper.

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