“Whole New York cramped in one basement.”
Nicolaus Schmidt is a German artist, photographer and historian. He studied at the Hamburg Art Academy (HfBK) in the 1970s. In 1975, he founded ROSA, one of Germany’s first gay-themed magazines. During the 1980s, he was a volunteer with the German branch of the children’s rights organization Terre des Hommes, serving for a time as its chairman. Since 1991, he has been living and making art in the Berlin neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg. Station to Station talked to Schmidt about his latest project Astor Place | Broadway | New York – a photographic portrait of New York City’s most iconic hair salon.
S2S: Nicolaus, you are a photographer who lives mostly in Berlin but frequently visits New York City. When was your first visit to NYC and what made you want to come back here on a regular basis? How much time do you spend here every year?
Nicolaus Schmidt: I fell in love with New York during my first visit in 1987. The last ten years I am dropping in almost every year, mostly for a month. I love the city, the people and the energy, but I can’t stand the noise. Living in New York would mean to book a subscription to a bunch of doctors.
S2S: You are currently working on a project that documents a variety of hair salons or barbers in New York and Berlin. Why this subject?
NIC: It started like this. I finished a photo session with b-boys for my book BREAKIN’ THE CITY – in front of a Caribbean barber shop in Brooklyn and was fascinated by the atmosphere inside. Kids were waiting, walls were painted in orange. It felt like dropping into another world. I saw some correspondence and contradiction to the thousands of hair salons that have been opened in Berlin during the last years. A barber shop or a hair salon does not only mean „style,“ it is very often some kind of social chatroom. Even in a metropolis it can be a meeting point like the square in front of a village church in the 19th century.
S2S: By what criteria do you pick the locations for your photos? Did you research the salons beforehand or do you find them by chance, walking in the city?
NIC: I wanted to pick up locations of a great variety of styles, of different social backgrounds. In Berlin, I started with hair salons in Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg where I live. Immediately, I got a lot of hints by friends for places in Berlin and New York. Paul Fleming and Elke Siegel from German studies, formerly at NYU, now at Cornell University, told me about Astor Place barber shop here in New York. Dropping into this place meant that I had to change my plan. The Astor Place shop is like a universe of hairdressers, it feels like whole New York crammed into one basement. Almost every hairdresser here is an immigrant – from Egypt or Morocco, from Cuba or Bolivia, from Uzbekistan, Russia, Italy or Romania. So I decided to concentrate on this place.
S2S: How has the project developed since?
NIC: I decided to stay at Astor Place Hairstylists for 4 weeks solely for the purpose of taking photos and doing interviews. Just now, half a year later, my book has been released. It’s a book about this very icon of „Ordinary People’s Manhattan“ that started vanishing in or during the last 20 years due to rising rents and the middle class and the happy few from all over the world who are settling in the former no-go areas of Manhattan. The Astor Place shop is a compound of styles, of ethnic groups and of nearly all parts of the society. I love this place.
S2S: In regards to being photographed, are New Yorkers more approachable than Berliners?
NIC: New Yorkers are so friendly, so open that I could hardly believe it in the first days of my photo shooting. Berliners, I found mostly open too but not to be compared with the Astor Place shop.
S2S: What are the biggest differences you have noticed between the “hair cultures” of both cities?
NIC: I am not an expert in hair styles. Both cities are big with various social and cultural or ethnic groups, especially New York. If you just look into the variety of African American hairstyles: you will not find something similar in Berlin. In New York young women like to wear pretty long hear, open or tied together mostly to some kind of elegant knot. It seems to me that in Berlin there is more often than in New York a reference to fashion of the Twenties or Thirties – and the style must fit also for sports or a 48 hour weekend club session.
S2S: One hair style that is an international phenomena, is called the Vokuhila (vorne kurz, hinten lang) in Germany and in the US is referred to as ‘business in the front, party in the back.’ Any clue why this style seems to transcend any border?
NIC: Maybe because of it being so off the road today. Many people don’t like the have to look like magazine styles. Then it is connected with popular movies or music groups, the Leningrad Cowboys for instance. I cut my hair like this in 1973, some years before the word became popular. I think I drank too much.
S2S: Is there a style you would call “typisch Deutsch” or “very American?”
NIC: I am a New York aficionado, so I can’t say anything about the USA. In Manhattan you run into a clash of antithetic styles, this includes the dresses. These styles seem to belong to different eras, countries or film sets. This is amazing and unique. Compared to New York, Germany and Berlin are much more homogeneous. But „typisch?” There are still those blond shining hair styles for women, not too long and fitting for every day and weather. You have to ask Udo Walz, he does the hair of our chancelor Mrs. Merkel, he wrote an essay for my book Astor Place | Broadway | New York.
Astor Place / Broadway / New York was recently published by Kerber.