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Geisha Exhibit Launches at National Arts Club
PowerHouse Books press release

The book, Geisha: A Photographic History, 1872–1912 written by Stanley B. Burns, MD and Elizabeth A. Burns, documents the intimate life and culture of the nineteenth-century geisha. It portrays these artists in a cultural reality created by staged studio photography, private scenes, and rare outdoor images. The geisha is pictured performing her daily rituals and various arts—bathing, dressing, hair styling, dining, dancing, and playing instruments. Images of courtesans and other working women are presented alongside the geisha to show all sides of this enchanting aspect of Japanese culture. Completing the story are insightful essays on the history of nineteenth-century Japanese photography, the social history of the geisha, and the history of the opening of Japan.

An exhibit opening and book release party is set for Geisha A Photographic History, 1872–1912 on Nov. 30, from 6:00–8:00 p.m. at the National Arts Club, 15 Gramercy Park South in New York City.

Japanese geisha and courtesans intrigue and fascinate Westerners. During the mid-nineteenth century, Japan opened its doors to the world and became an essential destination for travelers. Tourists desired images of landscapes and traditional Japanese culture, which photographers provided. They created souvenir albums consisting of hand-colored photographs individually chosen by the tourist. Many are so beautifully painted that they challenge modern sensibilities familiar with color photography. The photographic conventions were inspired by the aesthetics of the noted colored woodblock print medium ukiyo-e and the privately published surimono. These works depicted the “floating world”—courtesans, geisha, and entertainments—which also were intriguing subject matter for tourists.

In the seventeenth century, the social category of entertainer, or more exactly hostess and companion for men, was established—the geisha, Japanese for “artist.” Geisha are professional hostesses who train in the art of pleasing men, by performing traditional dance, playing instruments and singing, and intelligent conversation and humor. They are experts in tea ceremony and all aspects of dining. Their aim was to simulate the ambience and impression of Feudal Japan. It took years for an apprentice geisha (maiko) to learn the art, but the result was often wealth, renown, and celebrity.

Stanley B. Burns, MD, a practicing New York City ophthalmic surgeon, is also an internationally distinguished photographic historian, author, lecturer, curator, and collector. For the last three decades he has concentrated on collecting photographs relating to unexplored areas of history and photography. The collection now contains over 800,000 images, including the most comprehensive compilation of early hand-colored photography.

In 1995, he published Forgotten Marriage: The Painted Tintype and the Decorative Frame. In this exposé on the art of painting photographs, he explored the close relationship that hand-colored photographs have to paintings. He now explores the painted photographs of Japan, produced from 1872 to 1912, concentrating on the portrayal of geisha and their traditional arts. Photographs from his collection have been featured in numerous publications, films, and museum exhibitions.

The Burns Archive, his stock photography and publishing entity, is a valuable photographic resource for both researchers and the media. Dr. Burns is also a consultant for Hollywood feature filmmakers, as well as independent producers. Some of his film credits include Adrian Lyne’s "Jacob’s Ladder," Robert Altman’s "Dorothy Parker and her Vicious Circle," Tom Cruise’s "The Others," and Al Pacino’s "Looking For Richard." He is a contributing editor for seven medical specialty journals. Utilizing his unique collection, Dr. Burns has written seventeen critically acclaimed photographic history books, hundreds of articles, and curated dozens of exhibitions. His award winning books on memorial and post-mortem photography, Sleeping Beauty (1990 and 2002), became the focus of films and exhibits, including one at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. France’s Channel Plus created a documentary on his work as part of their series Great Collectors of the World. Currently, he is working on producing a documentary series, Hidden Histories, based on his collection of photographs of forgotten but significant historic events.

Elizabeth A. Burns is the Creative Director of The Burns Archive and Press. She has curated and organized numerous exhibitions and books, including Sleeping Beauty II and The Burns Archive Medical Specialty Series. In 2002, under a grant by the United States and Israeli governments, she produced "A Dream Deferred, The African-American Experience 1848–1928," the inaugural exhibition at the Center for the Study of the United States in Haifa, Israel. Other exhibits she has prepared feature works on early flight, spirit photography, criminology, Lewis Hine and the playground, African American history, and a special exhibition on respiratory disease entitled BreathTaking Photographs. Currently she is working on developing an exhibition of nineteenth-century hand-painted geisha photographs.