Astor Hair, New York & Vokuhila, Berlin:
Hairstyling & Social Marketplace
The exhibition which is presently on display at New York University’s Deutsches Haus, aptly explores two salons as transnational: spaces that cut through the hard-edged barriers of dissimilarity—spaces that allow for a convergence of social, cultural, economic, gender and other forms of difference.
My fascination with barbershops and salons began at a very young age. My earliest visits to the barbershop were frightening. I can recall being placed in the barber’s chair and covered with a satin-like apron which was meant to keep my coarse, dark-brown hair from decorating my neck and clothes. While I was afraid that a stylist might make a mistake while cutting my hair (and one barber did when he mistook my instructions to slightly shorten the length of my hair to mean disappearing it altogether), I was equally fearful of being exposed as different within a space wherein myriad individualities traversed.
Indeed, barbershops and salons, not unlike other places that function as both cultural and market space, are intriguing sites precisely because they are animated by social interaction. They are microcosms of our complex social worlds. Salons are unique sites through which to explore capital exchange, social interchange, and cultural transmittance. The best salons, after all, master the art of inclusion such that all manners of people are welcomed. Some barbershops and salons do this well, while others do not. And this, in part, accounts for why observing barbershops and salons, in the case of Nicolaus Schmidt’s work, is a valuable anthropological endeavor.
Viewers are gracefully welcomed into Astor Place Hairstylists and Vokuliha each time they gaze upon a photograph. Each photograph within Nicolaus’s collection is a type of visual quotation—a snapshot of a particular moment within an expansive subject world; an excerpt of a much larger narrative—that we are beckoned to read. The photos shift between close up shots that capture various elements as they appear within the environment and more scenic photographs that offer a more expansive view of the spaces, the people situated within the salons, and the objects that adorn walls and floors. Each photo narrates a bit of the subject worlds that enliven two sites that are vastly dissimilar and, yet, so very alike.
Susan Sontag notes in On Photography that “photographs are really experience captured.” But what experience are we, the audience of this exhibition, expected to encounter?
The exhibition is a collection of ethnographic photographs, which literally illuminates the beauty and multiplicity of the human subject captured in a dynamic social environment. The portraits are strikingly powerful. The photos also illustrate a visual conjoining of both salons’ past and present, present and future, and capture histories that can be easily rendered invisible, given the shifting and precarious nature of real estate costs, economics, and space within this moment of late capitalism.
Consider, for example, Astor Place Hairstylist, which became prominent in the 80s because they offered cheap haircuts. Yes, customers were enthralled by the energy that electrifies the place and the assemblage of cultures, languages, and bodies that enlivens it, but low-priced services were the first significant draw.
While other salons in Greenwich Village were offering cuts priced at $100 USD, a basic cut at Astor Place Hairstylists was priced at eight bucks. Nearly three decades have passed and their prices have only doubled. This might account for why they have also faced the difficulties of increased rent for space in the prime lower Manhattan location that they presently occupy.
Today, the salon, which at one point stretched across three floors, is now located on the basement level because of increased rental fees. The salon’s story of displacement is a narrative that weaves through the histories of so many other businesses in Greenwich Village – East and West, within the increasingly gentrified island of Manhattan, and within many segments of the five boroughs of New York City overall.
I am certain that the same structural dynamics shapes Vokuliha’s existence. Vokulila, which is located in the Eastern Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg, is itself a neighborhood that has shifted because of gentrification’s pull.
This exhibition, then, is a representational ellipsis, a sign of continued movement, that forwards Astor Place Hairstylists and Vokuhila into futures not yet envisioned. It is the story of art, workers, labor, small business, class systems, gender, gentrification, community, hair styling, Greenwich Village, and Prenzlauer Berg. In this sense, it captures the story of New York City and Berlin. It represents the story of the changing landscape of the world in these economically despairing times. And there’s no better way to read and capture this moment than through the transnational spaces and bodies that are shaped by such times, the social and market places that try their best to resist such shapings.
Darnell L Moore is a Brooklyn-based writer whose essays, social commentary, poetry, and interviews have appeared in various national and international publications and journals, including Huffington Post, The Advocate, Out.com, Ebony.com, TheRoot.com, Vice.com, Guernica Magazine, Mary: A Literary Quarterly, Religion Dispatches, Mondoweiss, the official blog of President Barack Obama and other venues. He is also a Managing Editor of The Feminist Wire. He edited Nicolaus Schmidt’s photography book, Astor Place: Broadway, New York: A Universe of Hairdressers(Kerber, 2013).