Catching Up With Rob Hammer on His ‘Barbershops of America’ Travels

Catching Up With Rob Hammer on His ‘Barbershops of America’ Travels

By: Sarah Wolstoncroft

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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.

Royal Shave shares Barbershops of America update

Photo via Instagram / @barbershopsofamerica

Royal Shave shares Barbershops of America update

Photo via Instagram / @toucantrading

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

Royal Shave shares Barbershops of America update

The late barber Honest John (left) in his Burlington, Kansas shop

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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.

Royal Shave shares Barbershops of America update

Barber Kenneth at Cuts and Bends Barbershop in Oakland, California

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“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.

Royal Shave shares Barbershops of America update

“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.

Royal Shave shares Barbershops of America update

Syndicate Barbershop in Long Beach, California

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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.

Royal Shave shares Barbershops of America update

Barber and owner Tim Trezise at Syndicate Barbershop

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“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.

Royal Shave shares dental care tips

Grooming Artist News Roundup: February 2017

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Welcome to February!

With Valentine’s Day less than two weeks away, we’re sharing ideas for beautifully crafted, thoughtful presents for your significant other that don’t come from the mall or the neighborhood drug store. If you’re in a long term relationship and really want to impress her, we’ve included an article featuring the most romantic hotels in the world. From Marrakesh, Morocco to Shima, Japan, these hotels are destinations in and of themselves.

In wet shaving news, the Sharpologist talks about the allure of luxury razors and explains what you’re getting for the money. And we interview Barbershops of America author and photographer Rob Hammer about why it was important for him to document traditional barbershops across America. Hammer captures these community watering holes – and their barbers – in a way that honors this slowly disappearing institution.

We hope you have a lovely Valentine’s Day!

Sharpologist does a roundup of 11 high end, luxury razors. (Sharpologist)

We interview Barbershops of America author Rob Hammer about documenting the disappearance of traditional barbershops around the country. (Grooming Artist)

Five vintage wet shaving products you should be using today. (Grooming Artist)

Stumped about what to get her for Valentine’s Day? Ask Men has a long list of non-cliché ideas that will exceed her expectations. (Ask Men)

If you’re looking to really splurge this Valentine’s Day (or to go big for the next one), these destination hotels are some of the most romantic in the world. (MR PORTER Journal)

Chances are you’ll be watching the big game this Sunday. This year, skip the vats of queso and pizza pockets and instead enjoy the elegant fare suggested by Food & Wine, like a beet slider with goat cheese. (Food & Wine)

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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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