When I was at NYU, one of my professors, Deb Willis, had been working at that time on a series of photographs in her mother’s beauty shop. In trying (unsuccessfully) to track down these images in reference to this review, I instead came across a slew of ethnographic photographic projects taken in barber shops. One might trace this back to Walker Evans if not further. It seems that the concerned photographer can hardly stay away from them. And why not? They are a focal point of social interaction, community narratives and larger cultural forces. They are like physical message boards; a Facebook feed in the real world.
Jee Youn Kim’s I Am Going to the Barber Shop takes a different tact from the more usual concerned documentary mode of portrayal that barber shops receive. One might classify these photographs as typological ethnography. While much of her other work is more strictly typology, her photographs of barbers bends towards a more traditional portraiture or documentary mode while keeping a standard composition between images. Our attention is split between the differences moving from barber to barber and the narrative specificity of each. I am reminded of Jan Bannings’ photographs of bureaucrats, though Kim is much more uniform in her composition.
The photographs are deadpan: we see the barber full length in the center of the frame with his shop behind him. The barbers are all ajashis, middle aged men, with the exception of one woman. They are also all photographed alone, again with one exception: a man with his young son. Each photograph is captioned with the name of the barbershop, often eponymous, and a narrative about the barber: how long they have been in the business, an anecdote or similar. The tone of this is friendly and conversational in poetically tinged language.
The book opens with a short essay by An Do Hyun and a statement from Kim before moving on to the photographs. Both essays are in Korean only. As we near the end of the book a spread of photographs of barbershops without a barber in front leads to several portraits in color and then to two spreads of color documentary photographs: exteriors, haircuts taking place, implements of the trade, customers and ephemera. The final pages are an index of the images with biographical and photographic info for each barber’s photograph, Kim’s C.V. and a letter written to Kim.
The books’ printing is a little rough on off white paper. The soft cover is an unbleached paper flecked with fibers. A line of red and blue slashes runs down the spine mirroring the barber pole that is in many photographs within. A small photographs and the title are tucked into the top right corner of the cover.
I Am Going to the Barber Shop is an engaging book of quiet portraits with an overarching typological framework. One could find as much enjoyment from either aspect as from their convergence.
I Am Going to the Barber Shop
Jee Youn Kim