Brandon Tauszik Talks About Photographing Oakland’s Black Barbers

*This interview was originally published at Lola Who. Hop on over to look at Brandon Tauszik's unusual GIF photography!

Brandon Tauszik is a photographer and filmmaker currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Well-travelled, his projects often explore moments of daily life just beyond the mainstream. One of his recent projects, Tapered Throne, takes a rare look at Oakland’s black barbers.

As Brandon learned, barber shops are at the heart of Oakland’s black communities, operating as vital centres for black male culture in particular. Using black-and-white GIFs as conduits into the barber shops, and interspersing audio fragments, Tauszik offers us glimpses into the daily craft, culture and conversations of these spaces—all in constant slow-motion. We talked to Brandon about his own background, the history of black barber shops in Oakland, and the potential of the GIF as an artistic medium.

Emily Paskevics (EP):  Hi Brandon, can you tell us a little bit about yourself—what should we know?
Well you should know that I recently turned 29. I’m a bit short. And I live in Oakland, California. I work with both filmmaking and photography on the regular, so I suppose I can be defined as a ‘visual artist.’ I co-founded the video production company Sprinkle Lab where I get to develop creatively within that medium. Then, I’m creating personal work with photography in tandem, flip-flopping my time between the two.

EP: You’re from Northern England, relocated to the United States, and have lived and worked throughout Europe. Where is home?
Brandon: Yes, my parents are American but relocated to England for 12 years after I was born, so I was raised a true Brit—accent and all. I’ve since lost that accent though, unfortunately. I moved from the UK directly to Florida for middle & high school, which was a super weird time to make a culturally jarring move like that. Now I feel that I’m finally putting down roots here in the San Francisco Bay Area, and it’s a really intriguing place to be. So here is home.

EP: Can you give us a bit of background on “Tapered Throne” and how you became interested in barbershops in Oakland?
It started from simply observing a total lack of corporately-owned barbershops in Oakland. It’s a shame, but it’s become such a cultural thing to accept and welcome corporatization in America. It’s the ‘lowest price wins’ Walmart view of things that has decimated small businesses all over the country—such as grocery stores, restaurants, credit unions, etc. Fantastic Sams, Supercuts, and Great Clips are America’s barbershop chains, but there are none here in Oakland. So I was initially curious as to why their long reach hadn’t expanded here. I started to visit and shoot at some shops I had seen in my neighborhood, which all turned out to be black barber shops—consisting of an all African American staff and clientele. I was fascinated by the casual racial separation that these spaces foster, creating environments that are intimate and exclusive. I wanted to explore the historical context to look for what has made these spaces thrive, as well as to capture the contemporary face of this layered craft.

EP: From a cultural point of view, what is the importance of the barbershop in the Black American culture?
Well, going back in time a bit, barbering was a prevalent occupation for male slaves during the antebellum period of the United States. However, these barber shops were segregated for white-only customers until African Americans were finally allowed to start their own businesses. The shops that those barbers then started had a natural tendency toward a black male aesthetic while also serving as conduits of culture and conversation. While America’s racial climate has changed quite a bit since the 18th century, our country is still deeply unequal and endorses a socially constructed identity towards black men. In Oakland, these barbers are doing their part to foster and nurture that identity, to strengthen it with love and support through the community of their shops.

EP Barber shops started to decline in the early 20th century when Gillette began marketing razors to men. How would you define the culture of barbershops these days?
Yes, the invention of mass-market safety razors allowed men to give themselves a shave more easily at home instead of going to visit a barber. However, the genesis of the black barber shop in America is in a world of its own. To anyone who’s interested, I highly recommend picking up Quincy T. Mills’ book Cutting Along the Color Line. He also wrote the project essay for Tapered Throne and is a very learned fellow with this subject.

EP: Besides grooming, the barbershops also seem to act as a meeting space for men to talk about their lives. Can you share a memorable story that you heard at a barbershop?
The conversations were so carefree,  and about anything and everything. Cuts are clearly just an excuse to be there for a lot of these folks. On Tapered Throne’s website, if you hover your mouse over the image of a doorway, you can hear a cryptically funny conversation that took place there about needing Viagra in old age. Then if you hover over the image of a window, you can hear a conversation about the unfortunate situation of being robbed in the area.

EP: Where did the idea for using GIF images come from, and why have you decided to use GIFs rather than more traditional image-making art forms like photography?
Day to day, I’m working equally with filmmaking and photography. Each medium has it’s own particular offerings and I appreciate working with them both. However, I feel that between the two (and borrowing aspects of both) exists the act of looping footage in the format of an image, which is often manifested online via GIFs. You get the spotlight aspect of a photograph but you’re able to spend time within the moment as the same sliver of time passes on infinite repeat. This internal curiosity came about in 2011 right before I started shooting at some of the barber shops, which themselves are relatively static environments, conducive to a subtle looping motion.

EP: Do you see GIF images as a new kind of art form, with a distinct role in the art world?
I still think the GIF is a really underutilized art form, particularly when used in tandem with or in place of static photography.  The file format has gone through a strong resurgence lately, mostly in the form of memes and frame-grab scenes from movies, TV shows, pop culture, etc.  The outcome of this has seen the GIF quickly evolve into a contemporary medium of communication. As more content and art is created for a life primarily on the internet, it only makes sense that we utilize the advantages of this distinct medium that lives there. Maybe GIFs are not ‘the answer,’ but let’s experiment and try new things.

EP: Can you tell us about some of your upcoming projects? Is there something that you are currently working on, or are excited about starting, that you can tell us about?
I’m excited to push this medium a little further, to be more intentional about the aspect of movement and the visual element of the loop. So many ideas, so little time!