Photographer travels U.S. to chronicle a fading piece of Americana: old-school barbershops

Rob Hammer gets a head shave from Mikal Zack at Lefty's barbershop
Rob Hammer gets a head shave from Mikal Zack at Lefty’s in Pacific Beach, one of the barbershops included in Hammer’s coffee-table book.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

‘You know immediately when you walk into one whether it’s the real deal,’ Rob Hammer says


They all have a look, a smell, a feel. Rob Hammer can tell right away.

Over the past eight years, the Encinitas photographer has crisscrossed the United States, using his camera to document a dwindling slice of Americana: the old-school barbershop.

Staying mostly away from big cities bisected by major highways, he wandered into places with names like Tony’s and Red’s and Honest John’s, places that have been around forever in all their pneumatic-chaired, wood-paneled, stacked-magazine glory.

He put more than 200,000 miles on the odometer and visited more than 1,000 shops. Not all of them had what he wanted.

“There’s a word that gets used a lot these days, authenticity, and it was a major factor for me,” Hammer said. “You know immediately when you walk into one whether it’s the real deal or not. Real barbershops are like people. They have a soul.”

The Craighead Barbershop on the outskirts of Nashville, Tenn.
(Rob Hammer/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

They have a history, too, he said, and it shows up in more than just the worn linoleum floors. It’s the collection of faded polaroid snapshots of customers tacked to a wall by the front door. Chairs in the waiting area occupied by people who don’t need a haircut. Conversations that pick up where they left off last time.

“Barbershops have for a long time been important meeting places, the rocks of their communities,” Hammer said. “It’s where men go to be with friends, to catch up on what’s going on around them, to connect.”

Yet the old-school ones are disappearing, and not just because of COVID-19 restrictions. While interest in barbering is booming — three years ago Forbes called it the fastest-growing profession in America — many of the new shops have a different, sleeker feel. Some offer bourbon along with the Barbasol. They cost more.

The evolution is why Hammer started photographing traditional shops in the first place, to capture them before they’re gone. It’s why he’s turned the images into coffee table books, the second of which came out this year.

Case of straight razors
A case of straight razors, one for each day of the week, at McLean’s Barbershop in Hyannis, Mass.
(Rob Hammer/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“Barbershops of America: Then & Now,” from Schiffer Publishing, has photos of barbershops in all 50 states, including more than a half-dozen from San Diego County, which is where the project started in 2012. There are panoramas of the shops’ interiors, close-ups of scissors and the other tools of the trade, and exterior shots of the red, white and blue poles that instantly identify what’s inside.

There are photos of barbers, too, many of them old enough to retire if they wanted to, and also of the younger set, the new keepers of the flame. (Nobody’s wearing masks because the pictures were taken before the coronavirus pandemic.)

In the book’s introduction, Bay Area barber Mark-Jason Solofa offers an explanation for the timeless lure of the barbershop.

“It’s a place where no man is better than another,” he wrote. “It’s a place that doesn’t care what your job is, what your social class is, what your ethnic background is, or how much money you have, because everyone pays the same price and everyone gets the same treatment.”

Pirozzi's Barbershop in Braddock, Penn.
Pirozzi’s Barbershop in Braddock, Penn. It is no longer in operation.
(Rob Hammer/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Passion projects

Hammer, who is 40, grew up in upstate New York. He has fond memories of going to the barbershop with his father.

“I saw a different side of him there,” he said. “Cross that threshold, and different rules applied. People let their guards down.”

His father took pictures, too, on the family vacations, and then put together slide shows for neighbors and friends. “I thought back then that it was the lamest thing ever,” Hammer said. “I remember telling him, ‘Nobody wants to see your slides, Dad.’”

His father eventually gave him a camera to play around with. He liked it, and he kept taking pictures on the side as he got a college degree in criminal justice and worked a string of jobs — construction, private investigator, sales — that he found unfulfilling.

“The constant through all that was photography,” he said. “I finally realized it was the only thing I could do for the rest of my life and be happy.”

He forged a career in commercial photography and gained a reputation for portraits of athletes — pro basketball stars Kobe Bryant, Stephen Curry and James Harden, among others — and pictures of fitness and adventure sports. His clients included Nike, Adidas, Foot Locker, Fox Sports, GNC and Uber.

Commercial work pays the bills, but the assignments also mean dealing with entourages and egos — 100 people on a set, everyone with an opinion. To keep from burning out, Hammer started pursuing “passion projects,” things he wanted to shoot, not because someone was paying him, but because the work fascinated him and said something about who he is.

Documenting the barbershops was one such project, and while he was scouring the country for those, he began to notice something else on the landscape: basketball hoops. Not the ones in fancy gyms or well-lighted parks, but the ones nailed to the sides of barns or telephone poles. The ones that use plastic buckets for rims or street signs for backboards.

“They are absolutely everywhere,” he said. “There isn’t a town small enough where there isn’t a hoop.”

This, too, took him back to his childhood and a mother who raised him to cheer for the Boston Celtics. His favorite player was Larry Bird. One year at Christmas he got a book about Bird, and in it was a photograph of the basket at the home in Indiana where the player grew up.

“It was a crummy wood backboard with a rusty rim on a dirt driveway, and it blew my mind,” Hammer said. “I didn’t understand how he could have come from that. That image told such an incredible story, and it never left me.”

The hoops project became a coffee-table book, too, “American Backcourts,” which Hammer is self-publishing. It’s due out this week.

City Barbershop, Ramona, Calif.
The City Barbershop in Ramona, Calif.
(Rob Hammer/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)


Along the way, he’s learned some things about America, how diverse the country is from state to state and region to region.

And how friendly it is, for the most part.

“I had done a fair amount of traveling, but not so intimately or by myself,” he said. “When I started out, there was some fear. I worried that people could be angry or violent. What I found in general is that if I was kind and explained what I was doing, people were accepting and kind and open to me, too. They even invited me into their homes.”

But he got a feel for the “red state, blue state” thing, too.

“I didn’t find the United States to be very united,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s just pride in where they are from, but many people have misconceptions about the rest of the country. They blame those living elsewhere for the problems we’re facing, and California in particular seems easy for them not to like. That kind of thing’s not good for the country.”

Of course misconceptions exist in San Diego, too. Not long ago, Hammer was walking in San Carlos, taking pictures of street life — another ongoing passion project. A resident came out a few houses away and yelled at him.

And then this went up on Nextdoor, under the heading “Man casing vehicles and garages:”

Witnessed a white male taking pictures of cars and garages on Mono Lake Dr. He is maybe in his 30’s with a beard. He had a black hat, black shirt and gray shorts. I asked him what he was doing and he couldn’t give me an answer and continued to take pictures. I have reported this to the police.

The post included a grainy photo of Hammer near his truck.

Hammer let it go, though the post was so funny he added it to his website. He’s much more concerned about the reaction people have to his photos, and to photography in general.

“I can’t stand the way photos are digested today, with the swipe of a finger on a phone,” he said. “If people would sit down with photographs, really look at them, there is so much you can learn.”

Clean up in Tony's Barbershop, Greenwich, Conn.
Cleaning up Tony’s Barbershop in Greenwich, Conn.
(Rob Hammer/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

He gets annoyed, too, at men who frequent salons or chain-outlets for their haircuts instead of barbershops. (Not that he goes all that often himself. He usually shaves his own head, climbing into the barber’s chair only to get his beard trimmed.)

“They’re missing out,” he said. “I want people to realize what a great piece of American culture they are, and how they’re disappearing.”

He got a reminder of that a few years back. He stopped in Burlington, Kansas to give the longtime barber there, John Deitrich, prints of photos he’d shot on an earlier visit. On the front of the shop was a sign: “Closed indefinitely.”

Deitrich was sick. Hammer left the photos with the barber’s wife. He heard later that Deitrich liked one portrait so much he put it in a frame on his mantle and brought it with him to show friends at the town’s Fourth of July festivities.

A while later, Hammer telephoned Deitrich to ask how he was doing. He got no answer. He Googled the barber and the first thing that came up was an obituary.

The photo that ran with the obituary was the one Hammer took.

— John Wilkens is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune