Beauty and Wisdom : Santa Ynez photographer explores weekly ritual of aging generation of women
By BRETT LEIGH DICKS NEWS-PRESS CORRESPONDENT
In Robbie Kaye’s new photography book, “Beauty and Wisdom,” there is an image she took of an empty chair at a Santa Monica beauty salon. Embedded within the arm of the chair is an ashtray with its lid sprung open, waiting for the falling ash from a burning cigarette.
The photograph is a poignant symbol of a bygone era, an era where beauty salons were the social center of every community around the country to which local housewives would make a weekly pilgrimage so they could be spoiled and pampered. As stylists sculpted curls into gravity-defying creative statements and turned nails into works of art, their clients would converse about the weekly happenings over coffee, pastries and, yes, even cigarettes.
Ms. Kaye, a Santa Ynez photographer, remembers those times well from growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y. A visit to the local beauty salon was a weekly ritual for both her mother and grandmother. But as firmly planted as the tradition was in American culture, by the time Ms. Kaye and her generation stepped out into the world, it had started to slowly fade away.
“A visit to the beauty salon used to be something on every woman’s weekly to-do list,” Ms. Kaye, 53, told the News-Press. “Just like shopping for groceries or dropping clothes off at the cleaners. But times changed and people started doing their own hair at home.”
In her recently released self-published book, Ms. Kaye features photographs from 20 salons across the country. There are also portraits of 52 elderly ladies who still regularly frequent the parlors. The 162-page “Beauty and Wisdom” (All Night Long Publishing/Amazon.com, $29.95) is the culmination of four years of work that began in 2009 when Ms. Kaye stepped through the door of a Santa Monica beauty parlor.
“I was working on a series called “A Day At” where I documented different places to capture what happened there across the course of any given day,” Ms. Kaye explained. “I photographed an antique mall and a junkyard and I then went to a beauty parlor in Santa Monica. During the day of photographing, I realized there was a much larger story there, and for the next four years, I took photographs of women 70 years and older in beauty salons all over the country.”
A photographic study of older women in beauty salons appealed to Ms. Kaye on several levels. Not only did she want to see for herself what remained of the ritual that was such an intricate part of the lives of her mother and grandmother, she wanted to see how the tradition had endured in the hearts and minds of women who are now in the twilight of their lives. So she packed her camera and took to the road.
Desiring a wide demographic, Ms. Kaye not only covered both coasts by visiting California and New York, she photographed in the South, including Alabama, Louisiana and Tennessee, along with states like New Mexico.
She visited establishments with iconic names like Sheila’s Beauty Shop, D’s Hair Styling Salon and Cindy’s Vanity Faire. Prior to arriving in any given location, she would research local salons and then contact them to inquire about their clientele.
“Once I found a salon that had clients who were 70 years or older, I would ask the owners if I could come and if they would ask their clients if I could take their photographs,” Ms. Kaye said. “I kept it general because I didn’t want anyone to know when I was coming. And the majority of women were fine with that.”
What she found at the salons was a communal and social atmosphere that encompassed both the clients and the stylists. In a salon in Alabama, there were five women trading opinions on everything from the town’s new pastor to recipes, while in Santa Monica, clients reminisced about the marriages and births and deaths they have collectively experienced.
One of the project’s greatest revelations was how open and accommodating Ms. Kaye’s subjects were to being photographed. She was dealing with women in varying states of make-up, not always flattering, but she found them all to be supportive of her requests to photograph them.
“These women were so wonderful in allowing me to be a voyeur during this time when they’re pampering themselves,” Ms. Kaye said. “They were so stoic and so open to what I was doing. They were sitting there with curlers in their hair or under a dryer, but they weren’t self-conscious at all. It was interesting to see how vanity has changed over the generations.”
Despite her talent, photography has only recently entered Ms. Kaye’s life. A trained classical musician who has worked as a recording artist and staff songwriter for the likes of Warner/Chappell Music and both Walt Disney Pictures and Disney Music, Ms. Kaye was first exposed to the creative potential of the medium through a musician who took photos of one of the bands she was in while they were on tour.
After living in Manhattan and working on music for a number of years, Ms. Kaye relocated in the mid-1990s to Oregon and then to California to continue her craft as a professional musician. In 2003, she studied photography at USC, and though she never earned her degree, the subject has remained a burning passion.
“Photography is very much like music,” Ms. Kaye said. “It is like a visual symphony where you put different elements together. Composing is an important part of both mediums and so is beauty. And I really like to take photographs of unsuspecting beauty. I feel like in this world of craziness, one of the things I can do is just inject some beauty into it.”
Much like the music she still writes and performs, the photographs that Ms. Kaye takes stem from deeply personal beginnings.
“When I started this project, I was approaching 50,” she said. “I think most art is born from something within ourselves and I think this was somewhat of an exploration of how I was aging.
“I wanted to do something that would help change the perception of aging,” she said. “In other cultures, these women are revered and looked to for counsel. But here in our culture, this is a generation that is overlooked a lot of the time.”
“I really think they have so much to contribute and I wanted to celebrate them.”
“Beauty and Wisdom” (All Night Long Publishing, $29.95) is available at RobbieKaye.com, on Amazon, and at Chaucer’s Books, 3321 State St., in Santa Barbara and Outpost Trading Co., 3547 Sagunto St., in Santa Ynez. For more information, go to www.robbiekaye.com.