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There are 13 hair salons within two blocks of my apartment. Most of them are open daily and keep late hours (staying open long after the neighborhood grocery store has been locked behind its metal gate). And most of them are busy, not only with patrons but with watchful, chatty neighbors. Apparently when it’s too cold for people in my neighborhood to socialize on the stoops of their buildings, they retreat to the salons.

While certainly not all salons are as sociable as the ones around my apartment building, there is something reassuringly constant about the fundamental nature of such establishments. For one thing, undergoing a haircut by a professional is something nearly everyone has experienced, regardless of economic status. Most of us know what it’s like to put faith into a person armed with sharp tools and what it’s like to watch our reflection as chunks of wet hair fall to the floor.

The basic tools are unchanging, too, both in terms of prestige and of decade: the sink with the neck depression, the scissor and razor collection, the combs bathing in Barbasol, the foot-powered swivel chair, and the cape tied off at the neck. (Even fancy salons are not immune to basic hair-cutting rituals like bibs and Barbasol, despite their best efforts to distract patrons from this fact with luxury amenities such as herbal tea and neck massages.) Style, it seems, is the only component that consistently changes.

It was a combination of these things—the clambake atmosphere of my neighborhood salons, their prevalence, and the way that even new salons seem in some way vintage—that inspired me to photograph them. I didn’t expect people to be so accommodating. Even though patrons weren’t necessarily looking their most beautiful (in curlers, or with their hair flat against their heads), almost everyone whom I approached agreed to my taking their picture. Some of them seemed to forget I was there, and others prodded each other about becoming famous.

At one of the barbershops, a well-known relic in East Village, the barbers proudly told me of celebrities whose hair they’d styled, including Al Pacino, Mike Myers, and Hilary Swank (who was preparing for her role in Boys Don’t Cry). One man, who couldn’t remember Susan Sarandon’s name, pointed at the photo of her that he had taped to his mirror and said, “I cut…her hair. You know her.”

These photos were taken at a variety of hair salons and barbershops around New York City.
 

Lisa Whiteman is a photographer, writer, filmmaker, and web designer living in Brooklyn. She likes taking portraits of friends and (especially) strangers. Some of her work can be found on her web site, lisawhitemanlens.com. More by Lisa Whiteman