By: Sarah Wolstoncroft
Last time we talked to San Diego photographer Rob Hammer, he was traveling the United States, camera in tow, in search of the most unique barbershops in the country.
At the time, he had just put out the first edition of his photo collection “Barbershops of America.”
Catching up with Hammer, 38, nearly two years later, “Barbershops of America” has now released a second edition: “Then and Now.”
Looking back at the project, the man behind the camera said it was “collectively one of the greatest learning experiences of my life.”
Traveling over 85,000 miles by car with his dog and his camera for the project, Hammer soon realized he had to abandon his online research and let the road lead him to the perfect destinations.
His search was for the hidden gems, not the places he said “exist on places like Facebook or Yelp.”
“My goal was to spend as much time off the highways and out of cities as possible,” Hammer said. “This has allowed me to see parts of this country that most people never do, towns that might not be on a map but would be looked over even if they were. Being in these places shows you how differently people live.”
He believes the world sees “a distorted view of American life,” glamorized in television shows that focus on the struggles of navigating big cities like Los Angeles and New York.
While photographing barbershops in more rural areas, Hammer found that “things are much simpler and move at a much slower pace.” He said the locals were good people who were proud of where they came from and “very happy to share what comes from their home.”
The lives behind the photographs
In towns like Burlington, Kansas, Hammer found dedicated lifelong barbers like Honest John, who he described as a man who could “light up the room with his personality and smile” and someone who “was as sincere a person as I’ve ever encountered.”
And back home in California, Hammer found barbers in the outskirts of Oakland like Kenneth of Cuts and Bends Barbershop, whose long, narrow shop was “filled to the brim” with books and paintings.
“He answered my questions in such an honest way that you just don’t get from most people,” Hammer said. “His continued passion for barbering is unreal. When you listen to him talk, you understand that he would be lost with it. The world needs more people like Kenneth.”
Lessons learned along the way
The biggest change from then to now is Hammer’s perspective on barbers. When he first started his project, Hammer was convinced there was only one type of barbershop worth preserving: the old-school traditional style.
However, the travels for his second book rerouted away from middle America, where he found some new-school barbers that were changing the game and his mind.
“The first book was entirely made up of old-school shops with only a small handful of the younger guys in the back,” Hammer said. “The second book is just about 50/50. Over the past two years, I continued shooting the old timers while also putting more of a focus on the ‘next generation’ of barbers across the country.”
He said, now that he stepped away from his own “stubborn ignorance,” his project finally feels complete.
“Once I got my head out of my ass, I realized that the recent barber boom has produced a lot of creative guys who are passionate about carrying on the old traditions. So, I started looking around and found a lot of beautiful shops.”
Back in cities like Long Beach, California, Hammer stumbled upon Syndicate Barbershop and its owner Tim Trezise, 36.
With a mixture of old elements like vintage porcelain chairs and neon signs and new elements like barbers with tattoo-covered bodies, Hammer knew Syndicate Barbershop was the perfect choice for the cover of his book’s second edition.
Tresize said, “it was an honor” his shop was featured on the front cover and described Hammer as a “killer photographer” and “genuine dude” who works for the love not the money.
“No one has done what he’s done before with documenting barbershops. He’s met more barbers than barbers have met, really. I don’t know if anyone’s met more barbers that Rob. He’s seen the business in and out,” Trezise said.
These days, Hammer mostly keeps up with new-school barbers like Trezise via Instagram. However, he tries to pop into shops he’s previously shot when he passes through town.
Hammer said their support has been “unreal.” In general, he said one of his favorite things about today’s barbers is their support of each other and the barbershop industry.
“It would be so easy for one barber to hate the next guy or just treat him like the competition, but they don’t,” Hammer said. “They are all connected and try to make one another better. So, that positivity and support has spilled over on to me as well. I’m lucky to have met a lot of these guys and have them embrace what I’m doing.”
In the future, Hammer hopes to take his barbershop search international and find another passion project to pursue.