The new book by Polish photographer Pawel Jaszczuk, High Fashion, is at first glance a collection of pictures of drunk and exhausted Japanese businessmen taken at night on the streets of Tokyo, but like everything from this maverick talent, not all is a it first appears. It is the second time the artist has visited this body of work. The first was in 2009 when London publisher Morel released Salaryman. A small beautiful zine produced in an edition of just 150.
For this new interpretation published by Zen Foto Gallery in an edition of 600, Jaszczuk has reassessed, reformatted, re-edited, and added colour to the pictures. In doing so he has produced a book that is designed to resemble an ironic take on a glossy fashion periodical.
The word salaryman originated in Japan in the 1930’s and is a term used to describe the male Japanese white collar workers who dedicate, and indeed sacrifice (quite literally in some instances) their lives for both their careers, and the companies that they work for.
The occupational stress and demand from their employers is renowned for being unrelenting, and it is not unusual for these men to work up to sixty hours per week. Often giving up any semblance of a normal life. Returning home at obscene hours of the night, or in some instances living in hotels and becoming strangers to their own wives and children. As a result, when the weekend arrives, these men relax and let off steam in quite spectacular fashion in the bars and clubs around the country’s cities.
The aftermath is clear to see in Jaszczuk’s photographs, and in the small hours of the morning, the streets of Tokyo appear almost as the aftermath of a battle. The “field” strewn with the broken bodies of those valiantly struck down in defence of what they believe. In this instance a working lifestyle that winds them as tight as a spring, leaving them little or no way of finding any remission.
Jaszczuk is quoted as saying that the work was never intended as a moralistic statement against drinking, but rather that he just wanted to capture “the simple contrast between men in nice suits and dirty streets”. For me it goes way above and beyond that.
In High Fashion, the images have been selected so that these men are seen to be adopting poses not unlike those seen in the monthly style bibles that are synonymous with modern culture. The pictures flow and move…lurch even with the same aesthetic reverence applied to the gospels of Knight, Meisel, McLelland and the like.
The men, whether vertical (just), horizontal or in the foetal position, share one common denominator. They are all unconscious, cradled in a beer and sake cocoon, which renders them oblivious to the world around them. Black trousers, white shirts, fine leather brogues and briefcases. All crumpled, dishevelled unkempt. Clothes maketh the man …this version, the most subversive of sartorial statements. The “poses”, comical, if not for the knowledge of the desperation and fatigue behind them.
Amongst the images themselves. One man standing – well slumped – against a wall, his coat hanging off of his fingers, and pooled at his feet. If his eyes had been open, he might actually have gotten away with it…..GQ could have beckoned. Another, this time one of the rare monochrome images, showing a man reclining, almost serene, his arm behind his head. As if reclining on a beach listening to gentle music somewhere under warm sun….which maybe he was.
It is difficult to look at these pictures, and once past the initial humour, not feel a wave of sadness. For example, a drunk man, unconscious, but still holding onto a bus stop…suspended, almost weightless, save for the utilitarian “anchor” that allows him to defy gravity. Another slumped over a railing, as limp as a child’s stuffed toy, or a slowly deflating balloon, discarded and forgotten.
This is not a night out after a Christmas party, or a celebration following a favourite team winning at….. whatever. This is just the end of the week. It would seem for the majority of these men, this is a desire to obliterate what has gone before….to erase any memory, and possibly even the thought that for them, this is all an inevitable and infinite cycle. Groundhog life. To wake up on the Monday and find that the clothes are no doubt immaculately cleaned, pressed and presented for it all to commence again.
Pawel Jaszczuk is a fabulous social commentator, and satirist par excellence. There is a dark humour that runs though his work, and a fierce and focused intelligence that asks us all to look at the world around us, and see more than just the obvious, just the surface. He presents us with images that ultimately hold a mirror up, and ask us to question our own attitudes to society and it’s perceived norms.
In High Fashion he has taken one of the most ephemeral yet omnipresent aspects of modern life, the fashion magazine, and in this instance, turned it into a searing indictment of one of the most respected but also rigid and structured cultures on the planet.
To look and see the humour is expected, but to look and only see the humour would be something of a tragedy.
High Fashion by Pawel Jaszczuk can be purchased here.
Robin Titchener is a keen, bordering on fanatical photobook collector of thirty years.