Photographer: Rob Hammer
In Lovesourced, a new series examining the passions, stories and dreams behind crowd-funding personal photography projects, Alex Boniface talks to Rob Hammer about his project The Barber Shops of America – a journey across the USA to visually document the decline of a truly historic and classless institution.
IMSO: Firstly, can you tell us a little bit about your background as an image-maker?
Rob Hammer: Growing up, photography was a hobby. Seems like I always had some kind of camera with me when I went places. My grandfather was a professional photographer and my dad took it fairly seriously. So I would play with his gear that was laying around the house. My parents liked traveling to Europe, and I remember him doing slide shows at home for his friends of all the images he took. And as a kid thinking, this is so boring, nobody wants to see your slides. Thinking back on it now, I guess it was kinda cool.
It took me a long time to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I went to a military college in Vermont, which was the worst decision ever. It really sucked, and I hated all the classes (I was a Criminal Justice Major), but the only thing that remained constant was taking pictures. Even if it was just with a simple point and shoot or a disposable. Any time I went any where I would shoot and couldn’t wait to get the film developed. The images were never any good, but I had so much fun making them.
After I graduated, I went through a bunch of bullshit jobs and hated everyone of them. Again the only thing that remained constant was photography. It was the only thing I loved doing, and one day it just kinda clicked (no pun intended). All I wanted to do was photography. So I bought myself a “decent” camera and started making really bad pictures. Tried taking a class, but hated the process of it. So I just went out and shot and shot and shot. Eventually the pictures started getting better and better.
Most of what I learned came from taking bad pictures or from the internet. The first year that I decided to really go for it, I remember spending entire days at a time laying on the couch reading photography blogs. Then going out and trying to practice what I learned. It’s amazing what you can learn from the internet. There is so much accessible information from amazing photographers. Still at that point I didn’t specifically know what I wanted from photography.
My first website was just one slideshow gallery that contained everything from an action shot of a baseball player to a flower. It was ridiculous. The images were terrible and there was no rhyme or reason to the gallery. As time went on I started learning about light and fell in love with flash. All I wanted to do was light things up. Didn’t matter what it was, but eventually realized that shooting athletes was my thing. So I started finding random “athletes” who would let me shoot them and everything started rolling from there. I would find a different person every day, take them to a location with a bunch of strobes, and just go at it. A couple YEARS later I finally (unknowingly) developed something that I feel is my own style.
Who are your photography heroes, and how would you describe your own style as an image-maker?
Rob Hammer: There are so many photographers that I looked up to/learned from and still do. Each one has such a different style and that’s what makes them so cool. Joe McNally, Dave Black, Tim Mantoani, Gary Land, Joel Grimes, Jonathan Mannion, Annie Leibovitz, and Mark Seliger are a few commercial shooters that come to mind. Looking at their work has taught me a lot. Of course I dig the old guys too like Avedon, but not as much.
Not sure how to describe my style. Think I have two. My commercial style has a lot of contrast and edginess to it. Certainly isn’t for everybody, but I don’t care. Nor should any photographer I think. You can’t shoot for other people. If you do then the images will look like shit. Shoot your way and you’ll like the outcome way more. When I first started, I was always concerned about shooting the way I thought the images should look or the way an Art Director wanted them. Then you realize there is a reason they hired you. And most importantly I’ve learned that you shouldn’t take every assignment. Only take the ones you are right for. Otherwise it will be a nightmare for everyone involved. I am far from rich, but taking the wrong assignment isn’t worth the money.
When I shoot personal stuff it definitely has a different style. More realistic I guess.
What was the motivation behind this particular project, and what excited you most about it?
Rob Hammer: I’ve always believed in the power of personal work. It’s very emotionally rewarding and always seems to lead to a commercial assignment!! Seriously! So I like to spend all of my free time shooting things for myself. Sometimes it’s an athlete. Sometimes it’s just going on a road trip and shooting whatever I see. After doing this for a few years, I decided I wanted to an ongoing personal project. And I always had a thing thing for real Barber Shops. There is just something so cool and manly about them.
I’ve lived in a bunch of different places and remember thinking how hard it was to find a real barber in each city that I was in. Seems like all you can find are the cheesy little ‘wannabe’ shops with no character and some hack job barber with a pair of clippers. Then when I would finally find a legit shop, just thinking how cool they are.
Rob Hammer: So much history and character inside. The real shops are total gems. Barber Shops in general are a dime a dozen, but the real ones are few and far between. So I started keeping my eye out for old shops and approaching them whenever one crossed my path. Some of the barbers were into it and some just didn’t get it. As time went on, it really sunk in how great these old shops are and what an incredible piece of American history they are. On top of that I started noticing how quickly they are disappearing and felt compelled to document them before they are all gone. Eventually America is going to be filled with high-end salons. Barbering as a trade will be virtually extinct, which is really really sad.
All the new “Barber Shops” you see try to be so fancy. None of them have any character. A real shop isn’t fancy. It’s bare bones and thats what makes it great. The inside is filled with pictures or other items that the barber has collected over the years. And you can feel the vibe of each town that the shop was built around.
The thing that excites me the most is getting to experience all the different shops. Every part of America is so different, which will have a direct impact on each shop. There is so much cultural impact on the barber/shop depending on where it’s located in the country. Each barber and his shop has a different story to tell. Those stories deserve to be heard. And I would be honored to tell those stories through photographs, which in turn will allow everyone else to experience them.
For the past 11 months, you have been travelling through New York, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Arizona and California documenting these amazing spaces. During these initial travels, what was the most memorable encounter you had?
Rob Hammer: Definitely the Barber in Spanish Harlem. And he was really the motivation for putting this project in high gear. Old Italian guy who had been in the same shop for 62 years. His entire life was that shop and one day his landlord kicked him out because she tripled the rent and he coudn’t pay. Now there is a Chinese Take-Out Restaurant in it’s place. I went to his shop a week before he was kicked out and saw first hand how devastated he was. Absolutely crushed. It was really sad seeing an old man’s life ripped away from him like that. Which is when I realized how many other shops are disappearing due to things just like that.
How do you envision the end result of your Kickstarter campaign?
Rob Hammer: End result will be a published photo book and video documentary. Regardless of whether or not I get funding I am going to finish this thing. I’m going to drive through all 48 of the lower states to document the old shops and tell the barber’s stories. Don’t care if it makes me broke. It’s gonna happen.
To pledge your support for Rob’s campaign, follow the link to his Kickstarter profile.
A larger collection of images from his travels can be found at his website.