Jesse’s book review, 1991
Jesse is back with another review. Moving on a few decades this time, as the last one was 1959. Over to Jesse:
1991-1995 Work possesses a surprising amount of depth for what the content actually is. Compiled over the aforementioned years, photographer Hashiguchi George went to various places of work in Japan and interviewed/ photographed people at their jobs. Often he chose two subjects based on age one being older and the other younger and the questions asked to each subject range from the length of career, current/ starting salary to what the subject had for breakfast and dreams for from the future followed by an interview (both in English and Japanese).
The photographs are all square format of workers posing at their work sites in their uniforms. He is neither too distant nor too far and the result is a work devoid of self-expression. Flipping through this at the library when compared to the other book they had by him (a travel photo book based in Berlin) this one came off as the less artistic of the two but ironically I felt the urge to write about it more as a result.
This begs the question why review a book whose target audience one can only assume to be adolescent Japanese kids looking to clarify that early existential choice of what they want to be when they grow up, presented by an art photographer who in this case presents a work devoid of any real artistic merit?
Aside from the meticulousness of the project let’s first look at the years in which it was made. All the jobs featured here are for the most part blue-collar trade jobs. These exact years 91`-95` in my opinion were some of the most crucial for Japan. 1991 saw the end of the Bubble economy; a period in which the jobs featured here were looked down upon while the white-collar jobs had the promise of everything. So the timing and examination of these jobs was soberly informative and necessary. Similar to the time leading to the war were the nation lost itself to militarization and imperialistic pursuits, the bubble economy lead the nation to lose itself to capitalism.
1995 saw the country destabilize further: both morally in the Sarin Gas Attacks and quite literally in the Kobe Earthquake. Even the most informed American reader may not know these two national disasters because in America at the time we were dealing with the Oklahoma City bombing. Based off this, it is interesting that he would choose the everyday people during this time.
Relating more to the photos, the western viewer can’t help but be struck by the workers` uniforms, as there is a specific uniform for each job in Japan. This on the outside might seem interesting yet trivial, but upon westernization Japan only had one uniform and that was the kimono. The kimono came in but two sizes: man and woman. Unlike our standards of dress, the individual had to fit the kimono not the kimono fitting the person as western tailoring practices call for. One can imagine the initial appeal of western dress was comfort.
But from there the applied expression became a topic of confusion. What jeans meant for an American had a different social meaning for a Japanese, and irony still is something that has yet to catch on. However, the only constant was the institutional uniform. Every occupation has a specific uniform here and everyone wears what he or she is. One becomes the role or the function that one is dressed for and is to be defined as such. This need for identity to a group undermines most western notions of dressing for the sake of individualism.
The other interesting aspect is the choice of examination of each job in context of the generational gap. For a country like Japan, generation gaps more so then in the west are stratifying. The film director Ozu Yasujiro made a whole career out of his depictions of children against their parents’ generation, and what you see here is post war generation working with the post bubble generation. Both from their interviews pervade a sense of disillusionment surely a sentiment that would have been even more felt after the events in 1995 (one of the few Haruki Murakami books I like dealt with this topic in “Underground” if you are interested).
Bringing it full circle, everything is identical in these photos except the age difference. All the photos are black and white, square format, and well composed. For each job the same camera perspective is used only the workers are swapped out all wearing the same exact clothes. So photographically, this highlighted only the age difference if one were to skip the text. This subtle variation was a highlight and main feature in Fukase’s Family Portraits, a series you may recall from a previous review. More than any issue in this book, we can say photographically the generation gap comes off as the most important issue or area for examination.
I kept this write up specific to the 1991-1995 Work. I have only seen this work and Berlin which was well done travel photography but can’t say anything greater about his work. A quick glance at Amazon shows a fairly large amount of printed work ranging from 15-400 USD. I feel here perhaps I didn’t drum up enough interest for the photographer as much as the culture at the time, so a recommendation would prove difficult. The Haruki Murakami novel reflects the sentiment of the period in which this work was shot and photographical would say it’s somewhat comparable to the Fukase work I mentioned. When I stumble across more of his work I will provide a more encompassing write up on the photographer himself.
This is an interesting one for me as a resident of Japan. You can still see elements of the breakdown that occurred in Japan in the 90’s in the Japanese workplace. To fall so far had a massive impact on society. Thanks for sharing this with us Jesse.
Jesse Freeman is a friend, photographer and movie buff. He has a great knowledge of photography books and classic cinema. He can also be relied upon for decent music recommendations.
You can more of his work and passions at the following places:
Want to read Jesse’s other great reviews? Then click here to go to the archives.