“It is sacred to this generation of women; never a luxury, but a necessity,” Robbie Kaye told me as I reviewed her Beauty of Wisdom project. “I wanted to capture the styles and techniques of these hairdos which will be obsolete soon, and probably never worn again.”
As a Fine Art instructor, I encourage my workshop students to develop themes as a central tenet to exploring and creating Fine Art Photography. Robbie Kaye is a photographer I’ve watched emerge onto the scene as a documentarian. She is an inspiration for all who struggle with theme development. You can see this project here or here. If you Google “Beauty of Wisdom” you will pick up several good reviews.
This project started as one of those, “A Day at. . .” series. After whimsically exploring, “A day at the antique mall”, then the junkyard, Robbie wound up in a beauty parlor of older women, an experience that changed everything. At first, she thought this might be a humorous project. She quickly found that these ladies were fearless, beautiful, and dedicated to their hairstyles and hairstylists. The ‘styles’ reflect the ladies’ self images, and the relationships with their hairstylists serves to confirm those self images. It would appear that the hairstylist relationship is akin to having a good bartender at your favorite pub.
“After that first day in the beauty parlor, I realized that I wanted to get a wider demographic of women, not just women in large cities. So, I hit the road and traveled around the country, photographing women 70 or older in beauty parlors. This was an intense trip because I knew that these wonderful women were not going to be around forever, and I wanted to preserve that personal connection between the old fashion beauty parlor and the subject.”
Hitting the road is not new for Robbie. In her first career as a musician, she was on the road consistently. The group’s bass player at the time was also its photographer and documentatian. In time, the bass-playing photographer went one way, and Robbie went another. It was not until she toured Spain 3 years later that she picked up the camera and fell in love with photography. Returning home, she enrolled in USC with majors in English and photography, a new student who was twice the age of her fellow classmates.
Robbie describes herself as a photojournalist. With her straightforward, disarmingly simple snapshot approach, she is able to connect with women of a sunset generation. This meets her goal of documenting a generation that needs visibility. She tells me that, because she was turning fifty when she started the project, she was beginning to think about the ageing process on a personal level. She observed how Americans seem to have an internal think mechanism that says “old is ugly.” Robbie’s project reveals a different reality. “You have to remember,” she remarked, “these women were getting their hair done before electric curlers, home hair dryers, and teasing combs. Many of them have seen the same hairstylist for 30, 40, or 50 years. This is ritual to the core.“
Robbie’s engaging personality allowed her to gain entry to these locations and permission to photograph her subjects. She captures a latent kindness in these faces, vacant memories at times, and bemused expressions as the women sit under dryers that spew hot tornados onto tightly wound curls. Look at Blossom’s ‘power do’ and the solvent, expectant face that tells us that the years have gone by, but nothing has really changed. See the hidden and reserved satisfaction on the faces of Rose and Virginia, and note the conic shape of the dryers, devices that could have come from the Mad Men TV set. I see engaged looks and timeless conversation in the Southern Ladies image. Robbie truly captures the gold in the golden years.
Robbie is experiencing significant project success, and her images have generated press recognition at the professional and amateur levels. She landed a prime spot in the recent “Month of Photography” show at Smashbox Studios. Her Twitter feed has 10,000 followers and hundreds of contributors as people recognize and appreciate a project that touched a universal theme, The Beauty of Wisdom.