With its fast-paced nature, California was no longer cutting it for San Diego photographer Rob Hammer. In 2010, he decided he wanted to see what America was like behind the glitz and glam.
Taking to Arizona and New Mexico for the next year, Hammer, 38, began his journey capturing the local charm of barbershops throughout the United States.
However, it wasn’t until he took to the streets of Spanish Harlem in New York City, where he met an old Italian barber named Claudio, that he truly found the inspiration for his project.
For 60 years, Claudio Caponigro ran his barbershop at the Spanish Harlem location. Yet, when Hammer stumbled upon the two in 2011, the generations-long community staple was preparing to close its doors.
Unfortunately, a proposed Chinese takeout restaurant was taking its place because the new owners were willing to pay a higher rent.
Hammer said Caponigro was visibly distraught at the thought of losing everything he had built for the past six decades. It was then that Hammer realized his purpose in documenting barbershops.
“His whole life had become that shop and it was about to be taken away from him. At that point I knew how important these old places are. Not just to the barber, but to the generations of customers who have been going there, and to the communities they are in,” Hammer said.
Thus the idea of expanding his search throughout America and compiling a barbershop photo collection into a book was born.
“I decided that the project as a whole would not be complete until I documented shops in all 50 states, and a book was the only way of preserving their memory,” he said.
Now, in 2018, Hammer has traveled over 85,000 miles and seen just about every barbershop the United States has to offer.
In turn, he released not one but two photo collections of the shops, “Barbershops of America” and “Barbershops of America: Then and Now”. The first focuses on older hidden gems, while the second includes new-age barbershops as well.
“To say I have seen a lot and learned a lot is an understatement,” Hammer said. “It’s taught me a lot about America and the people who live here.”
After visiting Spanish Harlem, Hammer knew his mission but had to choose where to begin. He soon learned that researching online wasn’t going to bring him to the shops he wanted to capture.
“After awhile it became obvious that in order to find what I was looking for, they had to be shops in small towns that don’t exist on places like Facebook or Yelp. So, I stopped doing research and just started driving,” Hammer said.
As Hammer bounced from state to state during the formation of his first book, he saw America from the locals’ perspective. He referred to “small town U.S.A.” as “the jackpot” because the people were so welcoming and a lot of the shops hadn’t changed their signature styles in over 50 years.
The photos that left an impact
Looking back at his full collection, Hammer said two photos stand out.
The first is a shot that is framed on Hammer’s wall at home. The picture features the late barber Jerry Cottone and his client.
“The shot of Jerry, rest in peace, at Larchmont Barbershop in Los Angeles stands out because it’s such a classic place with a bunch of empty chairs and only two white-haired guys in the back. Really classic shot. It’s hanging on my wall,” Hammer said.
However, the photo of Jerry and his client aren’t the only two white-haired men in his collection. Another similar photo of a man called Honest John holds meaning in his heart because of the story behind it.
Honest John’s story
Hammer found Honest John’s shop in the small town of Burlington, Kansas, which boasts just over 2,500 residents. Describing it best, Hammer said if you took your finger and placed it on the middle of an American map, you would likely land on the town.
“I went into John’s shop and instantly knew he was a special guy, one of those people that can light up a room with his personality and smile. He was as sincere a person as I’ve ever encountered. He knew everyone by name that came through the door and gave them a warm greeting. His relationship with each person that sat in the chair was effortless.”
Hammer said John was elated to get his picture taken and couldn’t wait to show his friends.
Before leaving the shop, Hammer promised to send John a print of the photo he took. However, with life and his busy travel schedule getting in the way, a year later Hammer realized he still had not sent the print.
Finding Honest John
To make up for it, he decided to stop by the shop and drop it off in person on his upcoming trip through Kansas. Unfortunately, when he arrived back in Burlington, he was met by a sign on the door that read “closed indefinitely.”
“I went immediately to the gas station and looked his number up in the phone book. Yes, an actual phone book,” Hammer said.
John’s wife answered but delivered sad news. John was sick and could no longer run his barbershop or meet Hammer to pick up the print.
John’s wife instructed Hammer to leave the print at the gas station where they would have someone pick it up. He tried calling again to check in a month later to no response.
“Eventually I got through and his wife told me again he was sick and couldn’t talk but that he received the print and loved it. She said so much so that he had it framed to hang above the mantle and even brought it to the town Fourth of July festival to show all of his friends, which warmed my heart,” Hammer said.
Over the next few months, Hammer tried to continue communication but kept coming up empty-handed until he decided to Google John’s name.
Unfortunately, the first thing to pop up was John’s obituary. While Hammer said it was very sad to read, he was touched that the photo used was Hammer’s shot of John doing what he loved most in his barbershop.
When it came to creating a second book, Hammer had new perspectives on life and his barbershop project.
From the first book, he learned the art of not following the beaten path. In doing so, he was able to see the beauty of local shops that don’t get regularly appreciated online or on television.
However, the bigger lesson came from opening up his mind to what the barbershop world encompassed. Hammer said his biggest mistake the first time around was underestimating the barbershop newcomers.
“At that point I was very stubborn and against any of the younger barbers but that’s just because I was too ignorant to think that anyone could be doing anything good,” Hammer said.
However, after visiting some new shops, his opinion quickly changed.
“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,” he said.
Syndicate Barbershop, one such shop that changed his mind about the men changing the game, now graces the cover of his second book.
Owner of the Long Beach, California shop, Tim Trezise, 36, said Hammer is a “killer photographer” with an eye for capturing the perfect angle.
Trezise met Hammer when he was shooting for his first book. Despite not making the cut for the first edition, Trezise invited him back in 2017 to shoot his shop’s blend of modern neon signs and vintage porcelain chairs from the 1920s and ’30s.
After the photoshoot, Trezise trusted Hammer to deliver the perfect photo but was unsure whether his shop would make the second edition either.
It wasn’t until the book’s widely-attended launch party in Costa Mesa that he was greeted with the good news. Barbers from California, Oregon, Washington, Texas, Illinois, New Hampshire and New York traveled to the party to celebrate the second edition’s release.
At the party, Hammer gave Trezise a wrapped book.
When Trezise opened it and saw his shop on the cover, the 16-year shop owner teared up a bit.
“It was an honor. 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 than Rob. He’s seen the business in and out,” Trezise said.
Hammer described the event as a “humbling experience” and praised the barbershop community for being one that is full of support and positivity.
Beards as part of the new barbershop game
Another thing Hammer realized the second time around was that beards also play a large role in barbershops today. While beard care existed in the past, new grooming techniques have made beards one of the biggest modern styles for men.
“You won’t go into a barbershop today without seeing at least one guy with a solid beard,” Hammer said. “They have always been a point of pride for men, but even more so now. And I think that’s because of what barbers can do with them. Barbers today are artists that can spin the nastiest beard into a work of art.”
While Hammer may have to figure out how to split his time and attention between shooting barbershops, basketball courts and “crossfitters” (his other gigs), one thing is for sure, he will never submit to an everyday office job.
“Working a miserable nine to five job just to receive a fat paycheck for building someone else’s dream is for the birds. It’s no way to live at all. And, that’s not to say everyone working a nine to five is miserable, but it’s not for me. I’d rather struggle through the occasional drought than bang my head against a cubicle,” he said.
Instead, Hammer plans to sort out the many ideas he has to find the perfect future project.
He said a barbershops of the world could also be in the works and is possibly something to look out for.
To keep up with more updates from Rob Hammer, check out the Zeus Beard blog.