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On a superficial level, Jodi Cobb’s coffee-table production, Geisha: The Life, the Voices, the Art, is just another slim, glossy hardcover about the exotic Orient. But Cobb, a National Geographic photographer and D.C. resident, has noble intentions: to document a dying profession through lush color portraits of aging Japanese women.

Her picturesque photos, however, stir feelings of unease; it is difficult to present a single facet of a culture, especially when language and history serve as formidable barriers to Westerners. An image of a geisha in a Kyoto train station, Cobb says, is meant to evoke “the geisha facing the 20th century,” but the deep historical context remains unexplored. Cobb might have taken a more provocative look at the origins of geishas’ pale makeup—origins reflected in modern Japan’s candy wrappers, which picture blond-haired, blue-eyed children.

In his introduction to Cobb’s work, cultural critic Ian Buruma contrasts geishas with Southeast Asian women working in Japan’s sex industry. There is dignity, he writes, in a woman’s conscious choice to become a geisha. But his words bring to mind a classic essay question posed by history professors: “Which would you rather be—a pioneer housewife in a house of sod, or a prostitute in a mining town?” Neither he nor Cobb addresses alternative ways, aside from the geisha, to preserve ancient arts and traditions. As a photographer, Cobb is top-notch, but her book’s summation of women who are “frozen in time and whose need is vanishing” invites further discussion. CP