By Jim Colton
“Home is where your story begins.” – Annie Danielson, Author
As we are in the throes of the annual photography contest season, many photographers are scurrying about, putting together their portfolios for submission. Many are under the misguided conception that their work must include images from abroad to have merit. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Case in point; the winner of last year’s “Photographer of the Year – Newspapers,” at POYi was Barbara Davidson of the Los Angeles Times, whose portfolio did NOT include a single image from abroad! Her portfolio was deliciously rich with local flavor, documenting stories in her own backyard.
One photographer has taken the mantra that “Home is where your story begins,” and expanded it to include not only his own neighborhood…but all fifty states! Enter Rob Hammer and his new book, “Barbershops of America.”
Hammer is a San Diego based commercial photographer with a penchant for travel and eating, but not necessarily at the same time according to his website. And although his travels have taken him abroad, his most compelling stories have come from local neighborhoods across the United States…including a collection of basketball hoops, portraits of the homeless and his latest assemblage of images from barbershops across America.
He started the project almost five years ago and discovered them to be America’s water cooler, where stories and local history were shared between the barber and the customer. But more than that, the barbershops themselves told a story…through snapshots of celebrities to trophies and animal heads adorning the walls. The shops had as much character as the barbers themselves.
This week, zPhotoJournal has a conversation with the introspective Rob Hammer as we discuss the path that led him to photographing the ultimate collection of “Clip Art.”
Jim Colton: Tell us a little about Rob Hammer. How did you wind up with photography as a career? And who or what were some of your earliest influences?
Rob Hammer: Not in any serious fashion, but it seems like photography was always a hobby. It’s something that I've always loved to do, and that passion kept growing the older I got. My degree is in Criminal Justice from Norwich University in Vermont, which was a total waste because I never had any interest in it. So after school there was a slew of meaningless sales jobs that I not only hated, but was pitiful at to say the least. Everyday for years, I felt like slamming my head against a wall because I absolutely hated those jobs. They left me unsatisfied and broke. So after a while, I made the decision that photography was the only thing I wanted to do for the rest of my life. After that I started learning as much as possible, as fast as possible.
Most readers will think this is bullshit (because you are the interviewer), but Sports Illustrated seems like my earliest influence. My grandparents got me a subscription when I was younger, and the photographs kept me in awe. The lighting in particular was what got me, because I never had much interest in shooting live sports. And I won’t go as far as to say that “Leading Off” was my favorite part, but…..
If I had to pin point one guy who really inspired me, it would be Walter Iooss Jr. The guy is a legend.
JC: You shoot both editorial and commercial work. What's the biggest distinction between the two for you?
RH: I’m not doing much on the editorial end anymore, but would like to. They both have great aspects to them, but I guess the biggest difference is money. And I’m not necessarily talking about pay. On commercial shoots there is a lot more at stake…which means there are a lot more people involved who want things to look a very particular way. Depending on the editorial assignment, there might only be a few people at a shoot.
On a commercial shoot, you are creating campaigns that a company could be using for an entire year of advertising. So their whole business could be hinging on the outcome. As a photographer, it’s a really cool thing that they not only trust you with that responsibility, but want you to create the “image” of their company. Having a commercial “budget” to play with is also awesome because it usually means bigger and more elaborate set-ups/locations.
JC: You do a lot of stylized "lit" portraits. How did you go about learning how to light and do you find the appetite for these kinds of portraits to be more "commercial" or "editorial"...or both?
RH: If it weren't for the Internet, I wouldn't know much. When I reached the point where I knew photography “was it,” I spent every waking hour on the web…reading blogs and soaking up every bit of information possible. Any website that had anything to do with photography and lighting got read. Then I would take that knowledge outside and apply it to whatever I was shooting. Most of the time it was a total failure, but that seemed to be the only way I learned.
There is a reason that almost all of my assignments are commercial. Because my style fits that niche much better. Over time, I've grown to realize that my style definitely isn't for everyone. In fact, it’s not for most people. I’m perfectly okay with that though. There is no point in trying to be everything to everyone.
JC: You also photograph a lot of athletes and athletics. Why sports? And how did you break into that genre?
RH: Sports was something that I've always been into so it was just a natural fit. That is what I chose to “practice” on when I first started out. Day after day, I found amateur athletes on the web who wanted pictures of themselves. We would go to different locations with all my lighting gear, and I would shoot until they couldn't take it anymore. After a while, I developed a portfolio that I thought was good enough to get me hired. So I started knocking on doors until I got a “yes”. Looking back, that portfolio was a huge pile of shit, but it got me started.
JC: Your project "Hoops" on your website is a fun little slice of Americana. Was it something you set out to do or was it something you saw and documented along your travels?
RH: The first book I ever read was “Drive” by Larry Bird (my mother is from Boston and brought me up on Celtics ball). In that book was a picture of Bird’s childhood hoop. It was just an old wooden backboard and rim, hanging on a dilapidated barn. I thought it was so cool that one of the greatest shooters in the game got his start like that.
So I guess the idea has been running around in my head for years, but I didn't start shooting until about a year and a half ago while traveling for my barbershop project. I’m currently on a cross-country road trip working on the hoops project, and probably will be…on and off…for the next couple years.
JC: It appears from your website blog Whatevermakesyounervous.com (see link below) that you do a lot of traveling. How does one afford to do that these days? Is a lot of it backed by clients or is it mostly personal work?
RH: I try and travel as much as possible. Whenever there is free time, I feel the need to go somewhere and shoot. Photography pays for me to travel, for which I am infinitely grateful. Not that I am wealthy by any means, but that’s what I like to spend my money on. And I always try to shoot things while traveling that I can make money on later. It still amazes me on a daily basis that people want to pay me to make pictures.
JC: You have a new book out called, "Barbershops of America," (see link below) where you photographed in all 50 states. How did you come up with the idea and how long did it take you to complete?
RH: From beginning to end it took 3 years, and is easily the single greatest learning experience of my career. Since it was a personal project, it was done in between commercial assignments. Finding 2-3 week blocks to just drive around the country isn't easy. Especially when you’re out on the road and a client calls asking you to shoot something awesome.
I didn't realize it until I was a little older but barbershops are awesome places…especially for men. And after moving around a bit, it struck me that great shops are becoming harder and harder to find. The old school barbers are either dying, retiring, or getting kicked out of their shops to make room for someone willing to pay higher rent. So it occurred to me that these shops aren't going to be around for much longer...which means that there will be generations of people who will have no idea what the old shops were all about.
Before it started, I spent a lot of time on the internet researching old barbershops but only came up with some mediocre results. So I set out on the first of many road trips with some places in mind. I very quickly realized that those shops weren't what I was looking for. They just didn't fit the bill. So I ditched that approach immediately.
From that point on, I almost never used a highway. Instead, I stuck to back roads leading me into a lot of towns that probably aren't on most maps. That’s when I really started to score. Don’t get me wrong, there were a few gems hidden on the outskirts of small cities too. But the majority of “real barbershops” were located off the grid.
People’s reactions usually went one of two ways. They were either all for it, or totally against it. And I only pushed on them if their shop was a must have. Barbers are quirky people, and that’s one of the things I love most about them. Some barbers were very skeptical about what I was doing and thought I was a cop. African American shops in particular felt like that. Everyone just stopped and stared.
The whole project became a “treasure hunt”. There were good days and bad days. Sometimes I would find a gem first thing in the morning, which felt great. Then other days, I would drive hundreds of miles and visit a dozen shops without finding something that worked. Those days were really frustrating. Wasting time and money wasn't a great feeling, but then you get a winner and your attitude totally changes.
The hardest part is that I was continuously raising the bar. So any shop that I photographed had to be just as good, if not better, than the last. My standards were very high and I wasn't willing to drop them just to complete the project. It made the whole thing very hard and in the end took up a lot of time, but resulted in a better final product.
The barbers themselves were often what made it for me. Seeing their personality in the shop was a very cool thing and witnessing their interaction and chemistry with longtime customers was amazing…especially in small towns. The barbers knew everyone coming through the door by their first names. When I had some alone time, I would ask the barbers a lot of questions and hearing their passion for barbering was such a cool thing.
Drop a pin in the center of a map of the USA and it might land on Burlington, Kansas…a small town with one stop light and not much else. This is where I met “Honest John” Deitrich…hands down my favorite barber out of the hundreds that I met…a real character who loved life and loved being a barber. “Yup, I've been doing this for 54 years…might make it another 54….I don’t know.”
Not much goes on in Burlington, and he was amazed at what I was doing. “I can’t wait to tell my friends that someone took my picture…they’re never gonna believe it.” Before leaving, I promised to send John a print, which I slacked on for a long time. About a year and a half later, I was getting ready to head out on another road trip and decided I would hand deliver it to him. Right when I pulled up to his shop, it was obvious that he wasn't open. There was a hand written letter in the window that read “closed indefinitely.”
I looked up his number in the phone book and called the house. His wife answered and said John was very sick, and didn't know if he would be going back to the shop. After explaining who I was and why I was there, she told me to leave his print at the local market. And she would arrange to have it picked up.
Weeks later, I called back and spoke with her again. John had the print framed and hung it on the mantle. He also brought it to the town’s 4th of July party to show all his friends. I’m scared to call his house again in fear that his wife will say that he has passed away. I’m hoping to stop in there on my next ride through Kansas to give him a book and see that he’s still cutting hair. It’s people like John and places like his shop that made me really happy to have completed this project.
JC: What were some of the differences you found by region...both culturally and visually? Also, was there something that tied it all together for you as well?
RH: Barbershops are very much a product of their environment. So what you see in each shop is a direct reflection of the place where they are located. For instance, a shop in NYC is likely to be covered in Yankees memorabilia whereas a shop in Montana will be covered in hunting trophies like bear heads. And that might be the thing that “tied it all together”.
If you were unknowingly transported into one of these shops, it wouldn't take long to figure out where you are. Between the “stuff” on the walls and the topics of conversation, it’s almost a dead give away. On top of that, you’ll always be entertained. I was fascinated listening to the daily lives of people all across our country. It showed me how big America really is and also how incredibly diverse.
JC: The book is self-published. Did you try to find publishers or funding through campaigns like Kickstarter, etc.?
RH: Kickstarter was the first step after I got serious about the whole thing. And if anyone is looking for a blueprint on how to fail at Kickstarter, follow my lead. It couldn't have been planned any worse. I was so excited about the project and the excitement completely took over. So it was doomed before it even started. Looking back though, the failure might have been the best way for it to happen. It made me realize how much I wanted it which pushed me forward. And I went ahead by funding the whole thing myself.
JC: How's the freelance market going for you? Have the changes in our industry to a much more "social media" oriented and internet-based world affected the way you work?
RH: I really can’t complain at all, but yes, it definitely has changed quite a bit. I’m terrible at social media and I don’t put nearly enough time/effort into that aspect of my business. There isn't much I enjoy about sitting in front of a computer and would much rather be out shooting. It’s been interesting to see how much focus clients now put on social media. Instead of shooting only for a print campaign, they also want to create content for social media because they have so many followers on Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, etc. I can’t really say it’s changed the way I work though. I’m still trying to create images the same way I did before.
JC: What's on the horizon for Rob Hammer? Are there any other projects that you are currently working on that you are at liberty to talk about?
RH: I've got a 100 project ideas going on in my head at any given moment. The problem is finding the time to work on them all. Right now, I’m currently in the middle of a cross-country road trip for the “Hoops” project. Eventually I’d like to have these images in some galleries and maybe a book. This is down the road a bit though. I still have a lot of shooting to do. I also have another project I’ll be starting soon relating to basketball, but don’t want to spill the beans on that yet.
JC: What advice or suggestions can you offer to young photojournalists who may want to do a self-assigned story like "Barbershops?" Any last words you'd like to share with our readers?
RH: This might sound a little generic, but just get off your ass and do it. There is no point in thinking about great projects unless you’re going to act on them. Stop making excuses about why you can’t do it. I've always been a huge advocate for personal projects. I believe every photographer should put just as much (if not more) time into them as they do commercial assignments. They are incredibly rewarding in every way.
Your passion towards them will lead to incredible things. People will notice your passion and the final product which results in a positive outcome. That outcome can be as small as a great new portfolio piece or as large as landing you a huge ad campaign. I can say without a doubt, that more great things have happened in my career because of personal projects than all the commercial work combined. In fact, most of the commercial work has stemmed from the personal projects. If you do it right, commercial work will always lead to more commercial work. Personal projects though, will lead to new and different commercial work.
Cross-country road trips are beneficial to any kind of photographer. It doesn't matter if you shoot food, athletes, architecture, whatever. Just being out there allows a certain freedom to make the images you want and forces you into thinking about new ways of making them. I promise you’ll come back a better photographer than when you left.
I've learned that time is a huge factor in the outcome of these projects. So if you’re going on one of these…allow yourself plenty of it. Don’t be rushed. And don’t feel like you have to finish the project by a certain point. Take all the time you want in order to do the thing correctly.
Lastly, don’t be so blinded by what you’re doing that you miss out on other things. Being focused is very important but I can’t tell you how many great images I may have left on the road because I was blinded by barbershops.
DO YOU HAVE A STORY YOU THINK IS A GOOD CANDIDATE FOR ZPHOTOJOURNAL? EMAIL YOUR SUGGESTION TO: JIM.COLTON@ZUMAPRESS.COM