Burns Archive

Burns Archive

  • Geishas
  • Introduction

  • CV


The Burns Archive is famous for its restoration and presentation of unresearched areas of history and photography. Founded and headed by Stanley B. and Elisabeth A. Burns, the archive has assembled over 800,000 images, including the most extensive collection of early hand-colored photographs.

One emphasis of the photo collection are the geishas from the ports of Japan, in particular Yokohama, from 1880 to 1910. These photos carried on the colored woodprint practice of the preceding century’s Ukiyo-e. The port city of Yokohama at the end of the nineteenth century was not accessible to every foreigner but had neighborhoods in which foreigners could come in contact with Japanese culture. Photographs depicting both everyday scenes from a geisha’s life as well as their "courtly" nature were produced for large-format albums and postcards, which were sold to travelers. Though these photographs were staged, to their creators they represented the geisha's customs. Through these the client brought Japan’s secretive beauties out into the world – treasures now preserved and again made accessible by the Burns Archive.

One of the most surprising phenomena is how Japan covets the geisha tradition. In such a way was the modern industrial nation able to maintain its distinct character. The country’s shoguns found peace during the Edo era (1603–1868) after many years of war; under Zen Buddhism the arts again bloomed. The bourgeois classes cultivated tea houses, in which the geisha developed the tea ceremony, the art of flower arranging, and other skills of excellence.

Geisha means "artist". Geishas were professional hostesses trained in the arts of pleasing men with dance, music and song, and intelligent and humorous conversation. In such a way were they to imitate the feudal life of shoguns for the bourgeois merchants whose climb to the landed class was refused. A geisha, however, could ascend the social ranks; her years of learning were often rewarded with riches, respect, and fame. At the geisha's highpoint, the Meiji era (1868–1912), photographs could greatly promote a geisha's reputation and even make her famous.

Over the last three decades Stanley B. Burns has dedicated himself to collecting photographs in the spirit of cultural diversity. His archive has become an indispensable photographic resource for research and the press. He is a consultant to Hollywood film productions for image aesthetics and historical questions. He has primarily made his career, however, as an eye surgeon in New York City.

Elisabeth A. Burns is creative director and curator of the Burns Archive and publishing house. She has published numerous books on a broad selection of topics in culturally history and the medical and natural sciences. In addition, she coordinates exhibitions on the photography of nineteenth-century geishas.

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