I was introduced to Robbie Kaye’s photojournalism project, Beauty of Wisdom, when I noticed she was following Imperfect Women on Twitter. After visiting her blog and website, I knew I wanted to share this project with our readers here at Imperfect Women. I contacted Robbie and she graciously agreed to be interviewed.
Robbie Kaye traveled throughout the U.S. by car, interviewing and photographing women in their 70’s, 80’s and 90’s at the beauty parlor. Her goal is to widen the perception of beauty in a culture that is primarily focused on the beauty of youth. Her images evoke a new view on aging, shedding light on this almost forgotten generation and preserving ritual and technique and the history that these women have contributed so greatly to.
IW – Welcome to Imperfect Women. We here at Imperfect Women feel very fortunate to have come across your work, particularly your “Beauty of Wisdom” project. Your blog, Beauty of Wisdom, documents your journey across the United States interviewing and photographing women in their 70’s, 80’s and 90’s at the beauty parlor.
What was your inspiration for the photo-journal of the “Beauty of Wisdom”?
RK – BOW started out as part of a larger whimsical project called “a day at the…” I had an exhibit called “A Day at the Antique Mall” and was working on photographing images for the series: “A day at the junkyard, a day at the beauty parlor”, but when I started photographing in the first salon I felt I had stumbled onto to something much more provocative than that series. The first images I took were of Jenny in Santa Monica, CA. She was wearing black and the wall behind her was orange. She looked so beautiful and graceful. So in essence, after a day of photographing in the first salon, I was inspired by the women I met and their ritual of coming to the “beauty parlor” for most or all of their life….and the next time I worked at the salon, I photographed a woman who goes to her salon appointment in a wheelchair, and she is absolutely beautiful, as was Jenny, and I was instantly intrigued by these women…they had something to say, and not necessarily with words, but with their faces and eyes and beings and I loved the fact that these women aren’t famous or celebrities but everyday women (who of course, are not so everyday!)
IW– Was there a statement you were trying to capture from the beginning?
RK – I really wasn’t trying to make a statement, but I think the statement was rather making itself…evolving and unfolding before me and enlisted me immediately.
IW – Did any of your perceptions change while photographing the women and stylists in the salons?
RK – Yes, my perception of older woman and aging started to change and I realized this courageous yet humble community of older women had so much to teach me. I was approaching my 50th birthday and thinking about my future as a woman, and my own vanity. I felt like I was looking into their eyes and searching for myself and who I am to become and how to become it. I experienced these women who allowed me to take their photos as taking care of themselves, in the humblest of ways…after all, they permitted me to take their photographs while they were in curlers and in the process of getting beautified.
Next, I realized how sacred the relationship between stylist and client is…as is my own experience with my own hair stylist. However, these women have relationships with their stylists for 20, 30 years and they probably know more about each other than their spouses. I learned that the role of therapist was traded back and forth and that confidences were plenty and they were ‘there’ for each other.
IW – What surprised you most?
RK – I was surprised to learn how savvy a stylist had to be in addition to their role of creating hairstyles…they are confidantes and friends and in many cases, family. Also, I was impressed by the commitment made by these women for so many years. They go to the beauty parlor not as a luxury but as a necessity and in many cases, the hairstyles they go for are not being taught in salon schools…
I was also surprised to learn for myself, that aging can be really beautiful and that I felt compelled to highlight this generation of women that seem to have been forgotten for no good reason…I was surprised that I felt so strongly about what I was learning.
IW – Do you see any activity that is comparable to the “weekly hair appointment” in the younger generation of women?
RK – I’m not sure…. maybe yoga, but I don’t think it’s the same. I’d have to think about that more and look into that to really have a better answer, or more accurately, opinion.
IW – One that fosters the same type of relationship these women have with their stylist and the social aspect of getting together?
RK – I really can’t think of anything offhand that is like that.
IW – Can you tell us about a very special woman who stands out with this experience?
RK – Every woman I met was special and shared a great story or anecdote with me. One in particular was a woman in Texas who recently had surgery on her head and had part of her head shaved. There’s a picture of her on my blog (Vera) She has red hair. Her stylist, Kathie, created a hairpiece from real hair and by the time she was done styling Vera’s hair into the prettiest bun, you would not notice the shaved part of her head…and I was so touched by the love and kindness shared between them. There are so many stylists that I met that just kept providing me with insight into their very special world. David Gould who is part owner of the Gould’s Salon chain in Memphis, actually offers his stylists seminars where they learn how to work with their clients in a psychological way. There they learn how to be confidantes…not only hairstylists.
IW – This project seems like it would lend itself nicely to a book (perhaps for Mother’s Day!) Is this something you are working on?
RK – I hope so! I am in the process now of looking for a literary agent to work with. I also hope to produce an exhibit with photos and excerpts from some of the video interviews. It is my hope that in creating a book I will be able to preserve not only the weekly ritual but also the hairstyles and of course, to show that women are beautiful at any age. And yes, mothers and daughters and grandmothers and grandchildren can share this kind of a book with each other. As baby boomers age, the ritual and these women are becoming a fading breed, and I hope I can contribute to them being remembered and not forgotten…I would like to make them very visible because they are a very important part of our society… If we did alter the perception of beauty and age, so many of us, men and women, would have so much more to look forward to, knowing that we will be revered when we get there and not discarded.
IW – How many states did you travel to? How many salons did you visit?
RK – I traveled to about 6 states and visited roughly 25 salons and photographed about 50 women.
IW – How did you go about selecting the salons you would visit?
RK – I started where I live, in California and then drove to the South, where I thought I could get a glimpse of Southern Ladies at the beauty parlor. I wanted to go there to expand the cross-section of women…and then I photographed a salon in New York while I was there visiting my mother…who I had to talk into taking her photograph at the salon.
IW – Was there any one you had to convince/nudge to be photographed? How did you go about making them feel comfortable?
RK – I had only a few women who didn’t permit me to take their photo. One allowed me to take her photo only after her hair was done, but for the most part, the women were very open to allowing me the privilege of photographing them. I’d like to think that I made them feel comfortable by not being too invasive into their salon time and also by telling them what I was trying to accomplish with my project, which was to show that older women are beautiful and to preserve aspects of an older generation.
IW – Was this the main outing during the week for some of the older women?
RK – Good question. I got the feeling that the women who were still making it to their weekly appointments, were doing lots of other things…some even still working. I hope to interview and photograph a few women in convalescent homes where they have their salon and nail day, which shows that even when they can’t get around themselves, they are still maintaining their beauty rituals and connecting with other women.
IW – What was the longest client/stylist relationship you found?
RK – I met a couple of women who have been working together for over 30 years, and a hairstylist Eunice, who is in her 70’s and has been working for the same salon for 54 years. I also interviewed a stylist who is in his 70’s and has been styling hair for 48 years…with one finger taped to the other…Gene, who serenades his clients with his beautiful harmonica playing, is quite the character.
IW – Did the conversations that took place in the salon change any of the geographical pre-conceptions that you might have held prior to visiting?
RK – Not really, I went to college in the south so it wasn’t really a cultural shock, it was in 1977 though, coming from New York. If anything, it confirmed my preconceptions in that I was hoping to find a sort of “real” ‘steel magnolias’ kind of thing and I did. I was lucky enough to have a friend in Santa Monica who is from rural Alabama, which is where I went to photograph the quintessential “Southern ladies” where one walks into the salon with flowers, another blueberries…and the ladies sweep the floor and fold towels since Sheila, the hairstylist, does everything herself… and they are all there…talking all the while about the pastor or what they are baking for the home coming…it was a dream come true for me and the ladies were so very welcoming to me and my step-daughter who was videotaping the interviews for this leg of the trip.
IW – I understand you are a former New Yorker who currently lives in California. What was it like spending time in the south or areas in the Midwest? Had you spent extensive time away from “the coasts” before?
RK – As I mentioned, I lived in Georgia when I was younger and visited Tennessee so these areas weren’t too foreign to me, if anything it was refreshing to be somewhere different, right in my own country…and the women here, were amazing – they offered us wisdom about life with funny stories, poignant stories and we felt very lucky to have met them. One woman, who lived through Katrina in New Orleans, reminded us that “everything is borrowed and when it goes, it’s time to give it back.”
IW – What conversation topics were most popular between the clients and the stylists? Family? Current events? Health? Anything else?
RK – Depending upon what part of the country I was in the topics ranged from family, church, God, flowers, recipes, the loneliness some felt after losing their spouse, painting their houses, and just keeping up with fellow salon mates. Universally, I listened to the client talk about how much she considered her hair stylist like family and vice versa…there was a camaraderie that was so close and loving…and while I don’t go to the salon once a week, when I do go, I pick up with my hairstylist, friend, confidante as if we just put the phone down and said I’ll be right back. And that’s how it is for these women, they connect with each other. After all, where else did these women have to go, 50 years ago or so to have that connection? They didn’t go to therapy then and it’s possible that their hairstylists served as someone to talk to, once a week, to confide in, to share sorrows and joys and births and losses. Once a week, having that quality time while they take care of themselves…not as a luxury…remember, some of these women never washed their hair themselves…and they certainly did not know how to re-create the hairstyles they were having done in those times….with teasing and combing and more teasing…and as I watched Virginia, 89, in New Orleans, have the wildest comb out I’ve ever seen…it impressed me to see the end result that MaryJane created…one simple, elegant bun.
One of my favorite replies to my question, “what would be a reason that you would miss your beauty parlor appointment” and in a sweet southern drawl the answer was “I’d be dead.”
IW – Thanks so much for agreeing to be interviewed. We look forward to seeing more of your work.
Robbie’s photography has been obtained by collectors in London, Tokyo, New York and California. Her work has been exhibited in Bergamot Station, Su Casa Hotel, Venice Beach, CA, Santa Monica Loews Hotel and has been featured in Gourmet Magazine as well as other publications including, Photographer’s Forum, THE L.A. Art magazine and The Argonaut. She is the designer of Holy Altar Chakra Cards. Robbie approaches her work with honesty and risk. Her published book, “Rendezvous with Light,” features her photography and the poetry of Carol Muske Dukes.
Robbie’s work is presently installed at the University of Southern California, Mallow Hair Studio, Santa Monica, CA, and Signature Cafe as well as other office buildings in Los Angeles. She received the Bronze Award in the International Aperture Awards, 2009 for “Bow Legs” and “Jenny”from her “Beauty of Wisdom collection.