Stroll around Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, Starbucks cup in hand, and you just might come across your friendly neighborhood barbershop.
A dozen stories, real and imagined, emerge in this photograph; let's start with the left-hand side. "Super Bump Relief" tells you that this salon belongs to that unique genus, "Black Barbershop". (After years of painful frustration, I found relief in a high-end electric shaver).
On the other side of the window rest ads promoting a music festival and a book by a motivational speaker. While local merchants of all kinds often allow cross-promotion, one is particularly likely to see it at black-owned businesses, which tend to go out of their way to support each other. Of which more, later. An unidentified man appears to stand guard outside the shop.
Inside, one can't help but notice Max, proprietor of the elegantly-named Maxamillion's Gentlemen's Quarters Barber Parlor. Over the seven years I've been coming here, he's never been dressed or groomed other than perfectly. His sense of style matches his personality, which is booming and warm. Here, he appears to be holding court - or conducting a symphony of some kind - as he cuts a man's hair. Such is Max's natural aspect.
From the particular cut, his face, and his companions, I was pretty sure this client was in the military. Was he headed off for deployment? There was something...imminent about him. Had I been listening to the conversation, rather than wandering outside to take this photograph, I'd probably know for sure. I love the expression of the woman looking on - fiancee? You can also see a bit of a fellow serviceman's face off to the side. He seemed friendly.
Street photography invites speculation. As I "develop" and shape digital images, my intuitions roam freely over the presumed identities and thoughts of the people I've photographed. Of course, one almost never really knows what goes on in the minds of strangers. But to freeze a moment in photography is practically to beg one's imagination to precipitate, take shape and harden for all time. Whoever she is in reality, whatever innumerable complexities she possesses as a living, breathing, multidimensional person, she will always be the young serviceman's fiancee in my photograph. Sometimes it's better not to know for sure.
Steve - the "unidentified man" above - has cut my hair for six years. At this point in our relationship, I don't even bother telling him what I want. He just knows.
In build, voice and bearing, Max bears an uncanny resemblance to my Uncle John. Uncle John used to dangle me and my cousin Shane by our knees with a vice-like grip we called "The Claw". I think about this every time I see Max today, 40 years later.
Tyrone is the newest barber in the shop, and one of the best things about this project was getting to know him. He's funny, immensely curious and a natural model with a secret thousand-watt smile. He reminds me of my former dreadlocked days - though my locks never looked this good.
In his element.
It's difficult to describe this sensation, which both tickles and slightly scares me each time.
There is a social aspect to all hair salons, I imagine. But there's a reason why they make those "Barbershop" movies. I'd been mulling over different projects this summer, and my friendly local barbershop seemed to fit the bill. Max readily agreed, and we agreed on a day expected to be neither too busy nor too slow.
Thursday was a very slow day.
I liked this guy. I think most photographers are introverts, and the anonymity of street photography is often a nice fit. I force myself now and then to walk up to people and ask to take their photographs. 9 out of 10 say yes, but you never know. Shooting at the barbershop afforded me lots of practice, and the interesting, unpredictable conversations that resulted.
He was from the South, and had enjoyed a long and interesting career. He had recently come to work for the City of Philadelphia, putting his private-sector experience to good use.
With his erect bearing, natty stylings, and precise, formal elocution, he reminded me of two people, neither of whom exist. One was the fictional and slightly terrifying Dr. Bledsoe, the president of the unnamed HBCU attended by the nameless narrator of Invisible Man. I'd be surprised if he wasn't a college trustee somewhere.
He also reminded me of myself. Not as I am, exactly, but rather as my wife imagines me. Had she met him, she probably would've assured me that this would be me in another twenty years. I don't know; I think i'm funnier. But perhaps he was funnier twenty years ago, too. Anyway, I liked him.
While I was chatting with Dr. Bledsoe/ Older Me, I noticed another man sitting a few feet away. I had thought this project would feature lots of people sitting around, communing over politics and sports. In fact, Max doesn't like to keep people waiting, and the entire time I was there there were only two unrelated people sitting next to each other. Our chat ended, and my interlocutor moved over to the barber's chair before I could snap a picture of the two of them together.
Still, there was something about the second man's face that caught my eye.
It's really quite a face.
He looks so vulnerable here. You just have to wonder about his story. All those lines that should be present in his face seem to have gathered in his forehead, before retreating to a corner. His eyes seem to be asking for something. I'm not sure what that might be, but I'd sure like to find out. That's what draws me to photographing strangers; Am I curious about who you are or what you're thinking? Click.
Later, Max told me he's been coming here for fifteen years. And as I learned, he and Max had been having, more or less, the same conversation for all those years.
The conversation consists of five rather well-known stages:
The Five Stages Of Grief
As usual, it all ended well enough.
Just not at this exact moment.
A few minutes later, he hurried back in so Max
could touch up some real or imagined imperfection. As usual.
A century ago, Chicago-based Emil Paidar ruled the marketplace for barber's chairs. In the late 1950s, Japanese competition and domestic investment undercut Paidar, leaving it with a fraction of the market. Today, as ever, hipsters in search of anything vintage have re-awakened interest in these seemingly mundane pieces of working furniture. Reconditioned Paidars command up to $5,000 or more on eBay.
Emil Paidar died in 1950.
I've known Steve for over six years. Our meetings are peppered with the gamut of topics one might find by tuning in at any barbershop - his love of Montreal and the Caribbean, my latest photographs, and our rapid and certain diagnosis of this or that social ill. He started cutting hair as a teenager because he couldn't find a barber to cut it the way he liked. Soon, he was earning some pocket money from friends and relatives. Nearly half a life later, the rest is history.
Despite our easy rapport, Steve is not fond of portraiture, and only reluctantly permitted candids that day. Look closely at the picture on the right, and you'll see just how reluctant his acquiescence was.
When a man walks into a barbershop, and notes that his weekend plans include fighting in a Kung Fu competition, the seasoned grooming professional listens carefully to the client's desires. If the term "meeting of the minds" could be rendered photographically, this would be it.
Time slows down at a barbershop. It reminds me of the days before smartphones. When I was younger, you never knew what kind of wait there would be for a cut, and me being me, coming back the next day was usually pushing it. And in my former life, I lived in a small town with one black barber, who eventually retired. It wasn't unusual to drive 1-2 hours for a haircut.
I've read uncountable numbers of Jets and Ebonys to pass the time at barbershops over the years - magazines I almost never noticed anywhere else, besides my grandparents' home. I never really cared for them, but they were a window into what other people were thinking about. Most of the time, they were accompanied by a soundtrack of good-natured arguments about politics, sports or whatever was in the news that day.
Frankly, I think I should cultivate more opportunities to be bored while waiting. I hardly looked at my phone the day I spent on assignment here.
As the afternoon wore on, Max told me about the salon's history. He's been there twenty years. Across the street is the salon where he previously worked, and at one point while Max was cutting hair, I thought I saw his figure reflected in window on the other side of the street. It was, in fact, another barber from the old shop, unconsciously mirroring Max's movements as each man worked a head of hair.
When he decided to strike out on his own, he could not believe the outpouring of assistance from the black business community. Lawyers, architects and others donated their time to get him off the ground. Twenty years later, his voice remains full of astonished gratitude, as he gestures towards just one of his photo-lined walls; many are accompanied by inscriptions from those who helped get him started.
He's reading a book of photographs taken at barbershops around the country. They are pretty good. On the last page is a picture of the author's toll stubs and hotel receipts. Must've been one hell of a road trip.
Before the invention of soap, some personal cleaning was done with a metal scraper called a "strigil". It must've resembled this, and to watch a series of haircuts up close is to be impressed with how delicately brutal this business is. Scraping hairs off neck, nape and chin, even where skillfully done, can leave a residue of nicks, welts and rashes. Such is the price of looking good.
Pro tip: If you ever find yourself cutting someone's hair, and you want to convey confidence and reassurance, grasp his head firmly and point it exactly where you want it to go. When travels find me in the chair of an unfamiliar barber, such directiveness puts me immediately at ease: Ah, he's got this.
It is the evident care and attention to detail that draws me to this image of Tyrone. Soon after I introduced myself, we were immediately sidetracked into discussions about photography. Turns out he studied it in high school, and loved it - too bad he had a jerk for a teacher. He showed me some of his photos from those days, and he some clever compositions. Chatty as we were, I never got around to asking him how he came to cut hair. One look at him here, though, and you can tell is serious about his craft.
He's got a great face. And with a little prodding, a smile that lights up the room. He should definitely get back into photography, as I think he'd be at home on either side of the camera.
Eight hours after I had arrived, closing time drew near. I was surprised how many white customers came in, some with an entirely-understandable half-question forming awkwardly on their lips. Max and I didn't discuss this, but I imagine most black barbershops serve the styling needs of their white customers. The reverse - in my experience, anyway - is very seldom the case. I suppose I should've expected that, in 97% white Rittenhouse Square, a majority of clients on any given (slow) day might be white - even at my decidedly black barbershop.
Something in common.
Steve's Flying Hair routine, Max's charms, and Tyrone's precise craftsmanship are on display at Maxamillion's Gentlemen's Barber Parlor, 2035 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia.
The entire collection of photographs from "A Day in The Life of A Neighborhood Barbershop" are here. I recommend using the slide show.