“The subject must be thought of in terms of the 20th century, of houses he lives in and places he works, in terms of the kind of light the windows in these places let through and by which we see him every day,” Arnold Newman, widely regarded as the father of environmental photography, once said. A portrait, by these standards, becomes a kind of anthropological time capsule, the condensation of an era into a photographic exercise in biographical naturalism. Person and place are whittled down to a single illuminated moment in which the framing environment seems to blossom from the subject, an extension of his or her unseen interiority. Or could it be, rather, the subject who is an extension of the given environment, born of and “thought of in terms of houses he lives in and places he works”?
Such questions circle at the heart of Franck Bohbot’s latest series “Cuts,” a natural continuation of his most recent projects, which saw him playing the romantic role of cinematographer, endeavoring to visually personify the unique character of different sets of environments &mdash all uniformly vacant yet pulsing with an invisible human presence. Many of his series hitherto have been typological Becher-esque explorations of particular places – cinemas, basketball courts, libraries – rendered to appear like empty film sets, well-lit stages built for action, captured in suspended moments of surreal caesura. Here at last in “Cuts,” a title with resonance both in hairstyling terms and filmic vernacular, the actors have arrived: barbers in their barbershops, mythical subjects of photographic lore that have presided on the list of essential Americana since Walker Evans roamed the small-town streets of Depression-era U.S.A.
Like the locations in Bohbot’s previous photographic studies, barbershops represent iconic sites of urban refuge &mdash some appearing as fortresses immune to the passage of time, others demonstrating the erratic evolution of an age-old profession. All serve as a social nexus point for the surrounding community young and old, and in this way come to physically embody the neighborhoods where they reside. From Crown Heights to Spanish Harlem, each of these shops unites the personal with the interpersonal, exhibiting evidence of its local history, culture, and clientele in the form of distinctive décor, services, and of course, the face of the business, the barber himself.
The barbers are photographed in moments of solitude, elevated from the familiar activity of their surroundings; interior details that both confirm and confuse temporality englobe the central subjects who preside over their small kingdoms like dignified petty rulers. No external lighting sources are employed and many images are composed and captured in a matter of minutes, borrowed from within a barber’s busy day. The subject is rendered just as he (or in some cases she) is seen – at once unexceptional and cinematically sublime.
Bohbot’s work inhabits a space between reality and fantasy, documenting and storytelling, every frame – to borrow a phrase from Nan Goldin – like a still from a nonexistent film. Continuity here is categorical; as with the flow of barbershop gossip, narrativity is fragmented and secured within each scene. For maximal effect, the photographer must temporarily act as barber, trimming away excess detail to successfully ‘cut and style’ from the untidy stream of daily life a look that characterizes both himself and his subject.
Text by Elizabeth Breiner