The celebrity lensman shares the first images from this passion project spanning 13 years—and counting—in a new double‑bill exhibition at the Asian Civilisations Museum

It was on a Monday in February last year, only weeks before international travel was grounded due to Covid-19, when Russel Wong received a text message from a friend in Kyoto: there is a forecast for snow in the city on Friday morning. When the forecast remained on Wednesday, Wong immediately bought his plane ticket and arrived in Kyoto on Thursday night, just in time to capture the winter scene at the golden pavilion of the iconic Kinkakuji Temple the next morning.

Such are the lengths that the Singaporean photographer, renowned for making portraits of Hollywood celebrities such as Jackie Chan, Zhang Ziyi and Isabella Rossellini and numerous Time magazine covers, would go to get the perfect shot. You see, it hardly ever snows in Kyoto—and Wong would know for he has made between six to eight trips annually to the old capital of Japan over the past 13 years, with the singular focus of documenting the lives of the city’s geisha community, or geiko in the local dialect, along with the beauty of its nature and architecture.

Kyoto is the subject of one half of a new double-bill exhibition, Life in Edo | Russel Wong in Kyoto, at the Asian Civilisations Museum. “There are very few places you go to where you still feel like you are in the old world. Kyoto is definitely one of them, with its traditional wooden machiya houses, women in kimonos … it’s not just the physical architecture, but the people too. There’s a certain old-world charm to it,” enthuses Wong.

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He became interested in photographing Kyoto’s geisha community in 2005 when he was in Tokyo doing the publicity shots for Japanese actor Ken Watanabe in Memoirs of a Geisha, a Hollywood film based on the historical fiction novel by Arthur Golden. When he visited Kyoto later, “everyone I spoke to, from the ryokan owner to the taxi driver to the person on the street, said it was a very funny movie—their way of saying that it’s not true. So I wanted to tell the real story. As a photographer, I can do it a bit more accurately because I have to be physically there to shoot. And I wanted to give them a voice to tell their story”.

An enigma to the outside world, even to those in Japan, Kyoto’s geisha community is notoriously private—and you need an introduction from someone from within to gain access. In fact, it took five years before Wong received an invitation to Tsurui, one of the most famous ochayas (tea houses) in the Gion Kobu kagai (or geisha district, also known as hanamachi). He had the opportunity to photograph the erikae ceremony, which is when an apprentice maiko graduates to become a geiko. During this rarely-seen process, she changes her hairstyle, blackens her teeth, receives her geiko name, and changes her collar (eri), from red to white.

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This is from a documentary point of view. When I shoot a celebrity, I have full control. In this case, I have no control. I am a fly on the wall
Russel Wong

“Time just stood still,” enthuses Wong. “This project encompasses everything I’ve done in my career, from fashion and portrait photography—with the kimonos, hairdos and hair ornaments worn by the geishas—to architecture. I shoot a lot of movie sets—and the city is very much like one, too.” Before this, much of his time was spent getting leads and talking to people in the city, while also shooting in the streets, parks and temples—or establishing shots in cinema-speak to denote the locations where the stories unfold.

How is this project—and subject—different from working with some of the biggest names in Hollywood? “This is from a documentary point of view. When I shoot a celebrity, I have full control. In this case, I have no control. I am a fly on the wall—and whatever happens, I shoot. I always have to keep the story at the back of my mind to push the narrative using photographs. It’s sometimes disarming because I have no control over it because this is part of their daily life.”

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The Russel Wong in Kyoto section of the exhibition explores the stories of contemporary Japan through 40 black-and-white photographs. Life in Edo focuses on the lifestyle and trends of the Edo period, from 1603 to 1868, through an extensive display (shown in two rotations) of nearly 160 woodblock prints—also known as ukiyo-e or “pictures of the floating world”—by Japanese masters such as Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige.

Wong was inspired by Hiroshige’s woodblock print of the Sanjō Bridge—the final stop in his well-loved series Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō—and captured his own photograph of the bridge from the spot where he imagined Hiroshige would have visualised his print. And this is where the two sections of the exhibition intersect, offering a contemplative space of how the past informs the present.

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“I wanted to show that as much as time has moved on (from the woodblock print), some things remain the same. That’s why Kyoto is Kyoto. The kimonos haven’t changed; the hairdos haven’t changed; and you have the same family making the wigs worn by the geishas that hasn’t changed for generations. That’s the beauty of preserving culture,” says Wong. All of his photographs in the show were printed in the oban size (approximately 39 cm by 26 cm), a popular format of woodblock print during the Edo period.

“Things that are well-crafted and are made with love will always stand the test of time. That’s what I try to do with my work: I don’t use filters. I don’t use Photoshop. It’s just good lighting, good design and framing. That’s all. You see the photographs in the exhibition and you know that there’s a subtle, timeless quality to it. And I pride myself on it.”

However, this passion project is far from being complete. Wong quips, “Have you seen how slowly the geishas walk? If you rushed them, they might fall over. The inside joke among my friends is ‘When is this project going to be done?’”

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Life in Edo | Russel Wong in Kyoto runs until September 19, at the Asian Civilisations Museum.