“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 Frank 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 – all uniformly vacant yet pulsing with an invisible human presence. Many of his series hitherto have been typographical 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 and 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 environmental studies, barbershops symbolize an insulated place of urban refuge, fortresses against the passage of time, exhibiting relics of their rich and peculiar local histories like miniature neighborhood museums. The story of each barbershop is considered from three distinct angles: an interior, exterior, and a portrait make up the applied shot-list. The barbers themselves 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 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, ‘cut and styled’ from within the untidy stream of daily life.