Interview: Rob Hammer of Barbershops of America

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Tony’s Barbershop in Greenwich, Connecticut

Walls of memorabilia. The smell of Pinaud Clubman and leather, mixed with the telltale laughter of guys just hanging out and having a good time while getting a fresh haircut. Classic barbershops are unmistakable. But they’re also disappearing. That’s why, in September 2011, San Diego-based photographer Rob Hammer set out on a nationwide journey to document these amazing old shops. Sticking to back roads and small towns, Hammer discovered gems in every state.

For 2 ½ years, Hammer logged 45,000 miles and visited over 600 shops, capturing these community watering holes and their charismatic owners. From there, he compiled the 70 barbershops that stood out to him most in his book, Barbershops of America, along with memorable quotes from the owners.

We had the pleasure of talking to Hammer about what he wanted to capture within the barbershops, the similarities and differences between shops across America, and one of the most memorable barbers he met on the journey.

What inspired you to photograph barbershops all over America?

I’ve always been into barbershops; they’re great places for men to hang out, to B.S. with each other and not have to worry about anything. As I got older and traveled around, living in other places, I noticed it was really hard to find a good barbershop and barber. I realized that these old barbershops were starting to go away. The barber was either retiring, dying, or getting kicked out of their place by a higher-paying tenant. I thought that was really sad. For me, it’s a great piece of America being taken away by these salons that are a dime a dozen, flashy, with no character.

Little by little I started looking for old shops in San Diego, and then I branched out to Southern California and Arizona. Eventually the project grew, and I knew I had to document shops in all 50 states before they were gone for good.

Angel's Barbershop in Seligman, Arizona

Angel’s Barbershop in Seligman, Arizona

What traits make a barbershop a barbershop?

The simple answer is that a real barbershop is authentic. It’s not trying to be cool, it just is. The barber has his space the way he likes it, and the people who appreciate that stay customers, then become lifelong friends. The ones who don’t go elsewhere.

What was your methodology to finding barbershops to photograph? 

I spent a lot of time on the road. And most of that time was spent off the highway, on back roads, in small towns that most people never hear of. That’s where I found the real gems. At first I tried doing research on the internet, but that produced mediocre results at best. After arriving at barbershops I found online, they were always a letdown. They weren’t as they appeared in pictures. And after a while, I realized that the shops I wanted weren’t in any pictures anywhere. They were off the grid. So that’s where I stayed.

What did you want to capture within these barbershops?

There are only so many ways you can arrange barber chairs and mirrors. Yet each real shop has tangible differences. The space has been occupied for so long that it becomes almost like a social club. A place to hang out with your friends. And in each part of the country, all those friends do things differently. In Wyoming, people hunt. So most likely, a shop in Wyoming will be filled with hunting trophies. In Kansas people love the Jay Hawks. That’s life. So most likely, the shops will be covered in Jay Hawk memorabilia. These are the simple things that make them different. The things that I wanted to show. So the viewer can almost get a sense of where they are while looking at the images.

Harry's Barbershop in Biloxi, Mississippi

Harry’s Barbershop in Biloxi, Mississippi

Barbershops of America was a long-term personal project that took nearly 3 years. As a photographer, how important was it for you to set aside time to shoot what you wanted in additional to commissioned work?

It’s extremely important. Any photographer who doesn’t shoot personal projects is a moron. Don’t get me wrong, I love shooting commercially. And it’s extremely rewarding, but there is no better feeling than shooting for yourself, and having that idea come to life. If you only shoot what other people want you to shoot, then your work will never represent you. And you’ll always be a hired gun.

When commercial clients hire you because your personal projects stand out, that’s when it gets really fun. You’re hired because of your vision.

What was your most memorable moment when shooting for this book? 

Not even sure how to answer that. Driving around the country for 3 years is an incredible experience. You see so much and learn so much, that afterward, you’re practically a different person. I probably can’t narrow it down to one moment. So many of the shops were great to be in, and so many of the barbers were such characters, that you can’t ever forget them. Food was a big thing for me too. I did a lot of eating everywhere I went.

What about your most memorable barbershop?

Probably shouldn’t single out just one, but if I have to, it would be “Honest John’s” in Burlington, Kansas. A one stoplight town in the middle of nowhere. John grew up and lived his whole life there. He had been barbering forever, and was still so enthusiastic about it. His whole attitude was so positive and contagious. He knew everybody by name and was greeted warmly by everyone who walked in the door. He couldn’t believe that I wanted to take his picture, and could hardly wait to tell his friends about it.

I sent John a print, and called a while later to check in on him. His wife told me he was very sick, but had received the print and hung it above the mantel. More than that, he brought the framed print to the town’s 4th of July party to show everyone. Once in a while I try calling to check in on him, but get a never-ending busy signal.

Writing that made me want to get in touch with him again. So I Googled his name in hopes of finding his phone number, and the first thing that popped up, unfortunately,  was his obituary. John was an amazing guy and I feel better for having met him. It’s also pretty amazing to see my picture of him as the one they used for his obituary. I’ve got his picture hanging at my house, too.

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Honest John’s Barber Shop in Burlington, Kansas

Barber John working on a client at Honest John's Barbershop

Barber John working on a client at Honest John’s Barbershop

How would you describe your photography style?

I think that I have two styles. My commercial style is very edgy and dramatic, involving lots of strobe light. It’s a much more complicated process, which I enjoy very much. It’s almost addicting. Then the other style that I use for things like the barbershop project is more simple. More documentary I guess?

Which photographers inspire you?

That’s a never-ending list. I ingest an insane amount of photography on a daily basis, and have become obsessed with photo books. So my shelves are filled with books by photographers of all different genres. People like Walter Iooss, Neil Leifer, Tim Mantoani, Michael Zegaris, Steven Shore, Joel Meyerowitz, Danny Clinch, Walker Evans, Martin Parr, Gary Land, Michael Muller, and William Albert Allard. There are so many guys out there doing awesome stuff.

Stancil's Barbershop in Albany, New York

Stancil’s Barbershop in Albany, New York

Do you have any plans to do something similar in the future?

I have an itch to start this project again. I was recently in India and saw all these barbershop pop ups on the street. The barbers there are amazing.

When I drive around taking photos, sometimes I’ll see some really cool shops. Some young guys have started slick shops that’ll be amazing in 30 – 40 years.

Also, about 3 years ago I started photographing old basketball hoops in strange remote parts of the country. It’s sort of similar to the barbershop project, where I just spend tons of time on the road.

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Photographer Rob Hammer

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How to DIY a Barbershop Hot Towel Treatment at Home

No visit to the barbershop is complete without a hot towel treatment. While many men enjoy this step for the indulgent relaxation alone, a hot towel treatment also has a very practical purpose: it softens your beard for a shave, especially when doused with essential oils or pre-shave oils.

A hot towel treatment works wonders for skin and hair. Steam and warmth from the towel open up pores, so any treatments you apply absorb better. If you’ve got a few extra minutes, it’s a wonderful step to add to your shaving routine. But it’s absolutely vital if you are prone to getting ingrown hairs.

Thankfully, this barbershop treatment is easily done at home with minimal equipment.

Tools:

1. Apply your choice of pre-shave treatment onto the dry hand towel

Use any essential oil you’d like to create a relaxing scent during the treatment – peppermint, lavender, and eucalyptus are all lovely. You can also select an essential oil based on its skin benefits. Peppermint and eucalyptus, for instance, are both natural antiseptics (peppermint also has skin-cushioning omega-3 fatty acids!), while lavender oil is an antibacterial (great for acne).

Apply only a few drops. Should your face be needing extra moisture – a common concern in the winter – try a pre-shave oil like Truefitt & Hill Ultimate Comfort Pre-Shave Oil. This pre-shave oil contains moisturizing sunflower oil and soothing aloe to soften your beard.

Alternatively, Geo F. Trumper Skin Food is a good option. Its glycerin base nourishes your face while protecting it from the shave ahead. Experiment to see what works for you.

2. Wet the towel and heat it up:

Option 1

Microwave the towel for 20 to 40 seconds in a microwave-safe dish. The towel should be hot, but not uncomfortable.

Option 2

Run your towel under hot water from your bathroom sink, then wring it out so it’s damp.

3. Find a comfortable spot to lean back and enjoy

Hold one end of the towel in each hand. Wrap the sides of the towel around your face, covering your cheeks, chin, and forehead, leaving out just the nose. Then relax and meditate for a few moments. Once your towel cools down (about 2 to 3 minutes), remove it and begin your shaving routine.

A full hot towel treatment and barbershop shave, as demonstrated by Players Barber Shop:

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History of Wet Shaving: Geo. F. Trumper

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Instagram: @ourkidthebarber

A Victorian Age Gem

Geo. F. Trumper began as a barber and perfumer in London during the Victorian era of the late 19th century, when the gentleman ruled supreme. Mr. George Trumper founded his shop in 1875 at 9 Curzon Street, where it is still located today.  Catering to the quintessential English gentleman, the company sold wares consisting of cufflinks, walking sticks, perfumes, and razors – all things which can be found when visiting the store to this day.

One of Geo. F. Trumper’s specialties from the beginning was perfumes, which were commissioned by and named after the nobility. Today, Geo. F. Trumper continues to fabricate perfumes, some even still named after those original noblemen (such as their famous Wellington).  

Tradition, without a doubt, runs deep within the going ons at Geo. F. Trumper. The family-run business can be traced back to George Trumper.  Their lime-based aftershaves are still wrapped in pink paper, an homage to the British war effort during the second world war.  (During this time, all other colors had been required by the military to be used in the war effort.)

The interior of the store also remains as it was when founded.  You’ll find the same mahogany display cubicle and glass cabinets installed during the shop’s opening in 1875.  And you can get yourself a classic shave in a private velvet-curtained room, where during the Victorian era, men of all classes would go for a regal shave.

Geo. F. Trumper later opened their second location, dubbed The St. James Shop,on Duke of York Street in London.

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Keeping Tradition Alive

Though Geo. F. Trumper is strongly committed to tradition, the company has not failed to stay relevant to the current age.  Maintaining their signature level of luxury and style, Geo. F. Trumper has made the move to selling online, bringing their long-held traditions to the rest of the world.  

Their shops offer the best of what any gentleman could desire and remain one of the few of their kind to still offer professional barber services, including hair cutting, hair tinting, mustache and beard trimming, shaving, and manicure and pedicure services. All these services are performed on location and in the privacy of a curtained cubicle. When in London, a visit to Geo. F. Trumper is a must for any true gentleman.

Find out more about Geo. F. Trumper on their website, and shop Geo. F. Trumper at RoyalShave.

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Happy Barbershop Music Appreciation Day!

That instantly recognizable close harmony, those dulcet ringing chords – barbershop quartet music is a centerpiece of American Music, and today we honor this genre with Barbershop Music Appreciation Day. Despite the popularity of barbershop quartet music, its origins are still unclear, though one strong opinion is that the style originated in its namesake – barbershops.

Barbershop music has appeared on shows like The Simpsons (remember the Be Sharps?), Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and Family Guy, as well as adopted by musical acts like The Beatles and The Beach Boys. Even Disneyland has its own famous barbershop quartet, called the Dapper Dans.

To celebrate this distinctive American music genre, we’ll be taking a look at its history and sharing some of our favorite barbershop tracks with you.

Will you be celebrating this holiday?

Timeline

Origins – Late 19th Century

Theory 1

In the later half of the 19th century, U.S. barbershops served as community gathering centers where African American men would socialize. While waiting their turn, they would harmonize, vocalizing folk songs, spirituals, and popular songs. From these impromptu gatherings sprung a new style that consisted of unaccompanied, four-part, close-harmony singing.

White minstrel singers later adopted this style, and in the early days of the recording industry their performances were recorded and sold. Songs like “Hello, Ma Baby” and “Sweet Adeline” were very popular between 1900 and 1919 but eventually faded into obscurity in the 1920s. (Wikipedia)

Theory 2

Some researchers argue that barbershop quartet music is a tradition invented in the 1940s by the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet singing in America, (SPEBSQSA) while determining the rules for singing contests. The group related barbershop music to several musical features popular around 1900, including quartet singing and the barbershop chord. (Wikipedia)

Revival – 1938

Tax lawyer Owen C. Cash wanted to save the barbershop style from the threat of radio, so he founded the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America (SPEBSQSA). The lengthy name was designed to poke fun at the multi-initial names of Roosevelt’s many New Deal agencies. They later renamed themselves the much more palatable Barbershop Harmony Society.

Today thousands of quartets and choruses are registered with the society.

Female barbershop music exists too – on July 13, 1945, Edna Mae Anderson of Tulsa, Oklahoma invited her friends to her home to sing. Their husbands were members of the Barbershop Harmony Society. On that evening, they formed the Sweet Adelines, which is now an international organization for female singers.

Discography

A few videos featuring some excellent Barbershop music. If you’ve got more tunes  you’d like to add to the list, leave a comment below or give us a shout out on Facebook.

Storm Front – Lida Rose

The Music Man – Barbershop Quartet

Old School – Little Town in the Old Country Down / I Want a Girl

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