Local Shops for Local People #1: Club Barber (Interview and Photographs)

Club Barber, owned and operated by Brody and Emma, is a relatively new barber shop in Grimsby which caters to providing an experience beyond a simple hair cut – including video games in the waiting area and semi-regular events featuring music and input from a variety of businesses.

In February, I visited Club Barber and spoke with Brody, spending some time in the establishment and photographing Brody at work with a client.

Like many similar businesses, Club Barber was disrupted by the nationwide lockdown but has since reopened with an expansion of the team.

The text of my interview with Brody is as follows.

PL: ‘How old is your business? What are your long-term aims for the business?’

Brody: ‘We opened Club Barber at the start of December [2019]. We plan to offer a different experience that people have never seen or experienced before when coming to get a haircut. We offer hot and cold drinks, we have an XBox with a few different games, we have a dart board, we play up-to-date music and have the latest magazines. We will also be hosting events where we will be collaborating with other local companies. Keep a look out on our social media platforms: Facebook and Instagram. We will soon be launching an online booking system so our clients can book which barber they would like to cut their hair, on a certain day and at a certain time. In the not so distant future, we would like another shop in the local area, and eventually expand out of town to other towns and cities. We are chiefly using social media to get our name out there as much as possible and to showcase what services we have to offer’.

PL: ‘What challenges have you faced in terms of establishing the business: for example, in terms of local authority regulations, attitudes of local residents)?’

Brody: ‘The main challenge we faced was with the local authority and having to wait for long periods of time in order to find out things such as acceptance of planning permision, etcetera. Just for us to change the outside front of the shop we had to wait 12 weeks. We were not even allowed to touch the paint colour!’

PL: ‘What response have you had from the local community? How would you describe your relationship with the local market?’

Brody: ‘The local residents have been very supportive and have helped us out massively, spreading the word and becoming return customers. We have not had any issues with anyone in the local area; we have had nothing but support’.

PL: ‘How could businesses like yours be better supported? What could help you to thrive?’

Brody: ‘Free local advertisements from the local paper would be great for new local businesses; also shops in the local area letting us put a small poster up. Some of them do, but some of the bigger chains don’t’.

Visit Club Barber on their website, Facebook page or Instagram account.

The Social Distance: Week Commencing 23rd of March, 2020

Having already been removed from work last week owing to the fact that I fall into a ‘high risk’ category, I had already had several days of ‘social distancing’ (read: quarantine) before the whole of the UK entered a state of lockdown on Monday, 23rd March 2020.

(Working from home – recording and editing lectures for my students)

Schools closed on the Friday previous, which meant that children are being homeschooled. My own children are studying their after-school martial arts classes (which are being organised wonderfully by Samurai Hearts in Grimsby) at a distance, with their sensei using online platforms to live stream their lessons every evening into the homes of the children who attend the dojo and after-school clubs. The Samurai Hearts team are also providing the children with Japanese lessons, again streamed online, twice a week.

The near-constant hand-washing, which the government has advised all citizens to practice in order to prevent transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, is taking a toll on skin. Both of my sons are lathering their hands in moisturiser and wearing cotton gloves (not unlike the ones I use to handle my negatives) at various points of the day.

(Gloves worn over moisturised hands by my eldest son, to counteract the effects of near-constant handwashing on his skin)

On Wednesday, 26th of March, Prince Charles tested positive for the Coronavirus. The BBC news report showed Charlie shaking hands with the general public at a recent event (during which the future king may very well have been incubating the virus) like a 21st Century variant of Typhoid Mary.

My family have also been taking part in ‘Body Coach’ Joe Wicks’ attempt to situate himself as ‘the nation’s P.E. teacher’ via his daily broadcasts on his Youtube channel.

And, of course, there is downtime…

The Social Distance: Day One

It’s difficult to think of oneself as ‘vulnerable’. However, owing to varous medical factors – and chief among these is chronic asthma, with which I have suffered (and been hospitalised several times) since early childhood – I have been labelled as ‘high risk’ within the context of the current SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. As a consequence, I have been advised by the UK government to practice ‘social distancing’ – which, like the refusal of the authorities to use the SARS-CoV-2 label to describe the pathogen itself, seems like an example of Orwellian doublespeak. What it means is that like many, many other individuals with similar chronic health conditions, I have been urged to quarantine myself – for my own safety. I am urged to stay approximately two metres away from other people, for fear of contracting SARS-CoV-2, a situation which could potentially lead to my death.

Homage to Koudelka

As I said above, it’s hard to think of yourself as ‘vulnerable’. I am what might be described as a ‘strapping’ chap, 6 feet in height (ironically the distance I am supposed to keep from other people), though of recent years I lean towards the corpulent persuasion. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) I’m 40-something but still feel about 15 when I wake up – and, to be frank, I continue to feel about 15 throughout most of the day. But ‘vulnerable’ I am, and many of my friends and colleagues who have also been advised to practice ‘social distancing’ are similarly difficult to perceive as vulnerable or ‘high risk’.

I have personal experience of pneumonia, which it seems is the possible end-stage in the contraction of SARS-CoV-2. I broke my quarantine to speak with some students today, as they were expecting me to deliver a class and I thought it would be unprofessional not to speak with them, and I told them about my own experiences with pneumonia; though this experience did not lead me to place my foot on the threshold of death, it certainly resulted in me knocking on death’s door. My oxygen levels dropped dangerously, I was placed on pure oxygen, and I was left with scarring on my lung tissue as evidence of this encounter.

More recently, I have a much more traumatic experience of pneumonia. My father died in November of 2019, following his contraction of a mysterious illness which, though doctors were unable to diagnose or cure it, gave him a terrible fever and led to him developing pneumonia. As his lungs filled with fluid and the effects of the pneumonia were compounded by other underlying conditions (atrial fibrilation, COPD), doctors decided to place him on terminal sedation. I stayed by my dad’s side for five days whilst his body failed. One wonders, given the mysterious nature of the pathogen which infected my father and led to his death, whether this may have been SARS-CoV-2. Beyond the realms of possibility? I doubt it.

I have been told, in no uncertain terms, to avoid going to my workplace and to work from home. Yet my children are still attending school (at least, until the end of the school day tomorrow) and I have to take and collect my two young sons from their educational setting. Of course, today this resulted in me coming much closer than two metres to many, many people. Additionally, my wife must still go to work. By ‘self-isolating’ from my workplace, my risk of being infected has fallen – but it’s far from nil, given my family circumstances.

On the other hand, practising ‘social distancing’ will have numerous other effects. Unable to take on freelance work, I am now entirely reliant on the income from my teaching job, which as an employee on a fractional contract is relatively small (under £15,000). Things will be tough economically. They may also be tough in other ways. Certainly, self-isolation may have an effect on people’s mental health. I make no bones about the fact that I have previously suffered from anxiety and depression, and have been on medication for such; in fact, can one ever say that one recovers from such an affliction? (And, unlike some who experience anxiety and depression, I am more than happy to label it as an affliction.) That said, I’m an anti-social sort of person, so having time to myself and working from home could have other benefits.

Communication with other people will be predominantly atomised and virtual. Will this be enough? On the other hand, this phenomenon has inspired my creative impulses, and I have several projects that I wish to pursue during my period of quarantine – including developing some teaching resources that I have wanted to develop for a long time. This afternoon, on my way home, I took my Weltaflex medium format TLR (loaded with a roll of Ilford’s FP4 Plus) and shot some photographs that I have wanted to take for a long time; these will no doubt find their way into one of the projects I am now planning.

Oh, and I also realised that giving yourself a haircut isn’t as difficult as I’d always thought it would be. Who’dathunkit?

More to come in subsequent days, but take care and be well…

Interview: Fine Art Photographer Shannon Taggart – Spirit Photography

The following is the full text of an interview I conducted via email with the superb fine art/documentary photographer and photojournalist Shannon Taggart, whose inspirational work focuses on spiritualism and the ethereal, back in 2016. The interview was conducted as part of my preparation for an article and conference paper focusing on spirit photography and the lasting impact of its visual paradigms on depictions of the supernatural and the liminal in both still and moving image photography. Shannon’s Instagram page is a fascinating repository for Shannon’s own photographic work and archival imagery on the subject.

A promo video for Shannon’s book Seance (2019) can be found at this link. Seance, available from the 26th of November, can be purchased from Amazon and other retailers.

I am as always very grateful to Shannon for taking time to answer my questions so thoughtfully.

QUESTION: How cognisant of the work of the pioneering spirit photographers of the 19th and early 20th Centuries (such as William Mumler and William Hope) are you when producing your own work? Do you allow the paradigms associated with their photography to shape your own work consciously and directly? How would you describe the relationship between their work and your own?

SHANNON: Spirit photography was not acknowledged in any of the official photography text books I studied from. When I began my project on Spiritualism in 2001, I had never even heard of spirit photography. Unexpectedly, the Spiritualists I met introduced me to it. I soon became enthralled with this secret history. I was shocked by spirit photographs. I was dumbstruck by their absurdity, their outrageousness, and their odd humanity. And their tenderness. And how the images spoke so eloquently about grief, about love and loss. This hidden photographic history then became a resource and an inspiration for my own photographic theory and practice.

QUESTION: Your work differs from that of the spirit photographers of the 19th/early 20th Centuries by, obviously, featuring a mixture of both colour and monochrome photography. You suggest in the statement on your website that in Spiritualism, technology is used to ‘extend the senses and assist an engagement with the spirit world’. Do you feel that the camera has a similar function? What determines your choice of medium/photographic equipment? What equipment do you use? Do you find that the choice of medium (for example, the film/digital distinction) is important? How does it impact on your work?

SHANNON: Yes, photography is one of the many technologies that Spiritualists use to extend the senses and invoke the unseen. I have been inspired by some of these approaches, which are part of the current “instrumental-transcommunication” movement within Spiritualism. In my opinion, the specific camera, film, or digital chip used makes little difference. I have shot with a variety of gear, and I have tried numerous types of film and digital backs.

I began to play with the glitches inherent within the photographic process after accidentally creating synchronistic photographs. One example happened during a séance, when people claimed to see a woman’s doppelgänger floating peacefully next to her. I did not see this. I attempted to make a straight document of the event, but her doubled face appeared on my film. I found this surprise thrilling—my camera shutter rendered a perfect metaphor for the invisible experience.

I became interested in exploring this photographic synchronicity. I tried conventions that are considered wrong, messy or “tricky”, breaking the rules of what is considered technically correct or professional. I saw how photography’s accidents and errors seemed to offer a visual language for the immaterial. I began to think about the magic of using light, time and automation as raw materials. I began to consider the conjuring power of photography itself.

My work blurs the distinctions between ethnographic study, photojournalism, and art. My goal is to produce a project that informs, but one that also blurs boundaries and creates questions. I do this by including images that use photography’s own mechanisms to question these spiritual realities–photographs that contain both mechanical and spiritual explanations, requiring interpretation.

QUESTION: As you suggest in the statement on your website, ‘The answer came when I pushed my camera to the edge of its functionality and crossed the boundary of what is considered bad, wrong or unprofessional. Chance elements and the inherent imperfections of the photographic process (blur, abstraction, motion, flare) offer an agent for the immaterial’. Are these ‘chance elements’ the same in today’s world of digital photography as they were in, say, Mumler’s use of photographic plates; or do you feel there is a qualitative difference between the ‘chance elements’ of digital photography and those of the photography of the 19th/early 20th Centuries?

SHANNON: The difference between then and now is that we understand photography’s subjective abilities better. We understand trick photography, accidents, and double exposure. Despite this knowledge, the photographic process still retains a level of mystery that is astounding. Photography remains magical, whatever the technical process. It freezes time, it automates, it transforms. Even the most pragmatic practitioners speak of its mystery.

QUESTION: In your statement, you highlight the distinction between the ‘veiled presence’ and the ‘visible body’. Spirit photography has traditionally seen a tension between depicting the ghostly/ethereal (for example, the ‘intangible presences’ within the photography of William Mumler and William Hope) and the physical/corporeal (for example, the vogue in the 1920s for parapsychologists/photographers like Albert von Schrenck-Notzing and T G Hamilton to photograph ectoplasmic emissions). In the work of the spirit photographers of the 19th/early 20th Centuries, these two approaches very rarely crossed over – if at all. Do you think these two approaches may be reconciled? Do these two approaches communicate the sense of liminality in the same way as one another, or do they possess different connotations?

SHANNON: This tension between the intangible and the physical is still present in Spiritualism today, so it’s something I’ve struggled with while trying to create photographs of mediums. I have been unable to reconcile these approaches. The mediums who produce objective physical effects beg to be straightly documented. Their ritual acts leave no room for play–they’ve already rendered a mystery. The mediums whose workings remain invisible seem to offer a richer atmosphere for photographic interpretation and experimentation.

QUESTION: In what ways do you think our relationship with these images is similar to, or different from, how the work of photographers like William Hope or Albert von Schrenck-Notzing was received during the 19th/early 20th Centuries? Do you think the 19th Century emphasis that was placed on photography as ‘evidence’, which formed a large part of the context of the work of photographers like Mumler and Hope – with photography used as ‘proof’ by both Spiritualists and skeptics – is still with us today?

SHANNON: Albert von Schrenck-Notzing came to conclude that “a photograph reproduces only an instant, abstracted from the flow of the living event as it occurred during seances. For this reason, the effect it produced could only be crude and deceptive.” He abandoned the photographic process for its inability to render what he saw as objective fact. He recognized that photographs complicated truth. I see myself as embracing the process for the exact reasons that Schrenck-Notzing abandoned it. I’m trying to take photography’s innate subjectivity as far as it will go, to see what will happen. That said, I do find that many viewers don’t take into account the complexity of a photographic truth. This is a theme I try to address every time I lecture. Photography is a trickster medium. Photographs continually offer a variety of interpretations. And this invitation to assign meaning is a major part of photography’s power.

QUESTION: Do you think the visual paradigms/iconography of spirit photography of the 19th/early 20th Centuries have played a significant role in how the theme of liminality has been explored in other areas of visual culture of the 20th/21st Centuries (for example, in films about ghosts, etc)? If so, in what ways?

SHANNON: In contemporary culture, there is an awareness of Spiritualist photographic iconography that is disconnected from its history. Ectoplasm, Spiritualism’s most iconic symbol, is part of a shared visual vocabulary, demonstrated from jokes on the cartoon South Park to imagery used by fine artists like Mike Kelley and Tony Oursler. Most famously, ectoplasm appears in the 1984 movie Ghostbusters, co-written by Dan Ackroyd, and soon to be in theaters as a sequel film. Dan Ackroyd is a fourth generation Spiritualist, and he is drawing the term directly from Spiritualist practice. These examples attest to the power of this imagery, and also to its marginalization.

QUESTION: What do you feel is the reason for the enduring fascination with this theme of liminality within visual culture? Why is it so prevalent? Are the reasons for its appeal today the same as for its appeal during the early years of spirit photography?

The liminal realm is where all myth and mystery reside. This visualized liminality, with its blurring of the true and the false, flickers so intensely that it’s difficult to take your eyes off of it. The appeal of liminality within visual culture remains because it offers a way to contemplate the ineffable within our ordered, rationalized, and largely disenchanted world.

(The images used to illustrate this interview are by William Mumler and Albert von Schrenck-Notzing, respectively.)