In the lower part of New York City’s Manhattan, there sits a one-block street called Astor Place. It’s home to some of the most iconic barber shops in America, including the legendary Astor Place Hairstylists that’s been at the helm of the NYC community for the past 75 years. Over the course of the pandemic, however, the business has been enduring financial hardships. On the verge of closure, local photographer Lanna Apisukh rushed down to the area last November to document some of the barbershops longest serving hairstylists.
“Astor Place is not just your typical barbershop,” she tells It’s Nice That, “it’s really a cultural institution that has served its East Village community for the past 75 years. A lot of the hairstylists are immigrants from different parts of the world; it’s a real melting pot of people, languages and cultures which truly feels like the quintessential New York City establishment.”
When Lanna heard that the doors of barbershop were soon to close, she had an instant desire to set out to the location with her camera. In turn, she photographed some of the most legendary hairstylists there: this includes Speedy, a barber who she’d met through a friend. “I quickly began to connect with other stylists in the barbershop (they were all very welcoming and curious about what I was doing), and I learned of their stories,” adds Lanna, noting how some had been working at the shop for more than 40 years. She knew forthwith that she wanted to help preserve the longstanding legacy of Astor Place, and in doing so celebrate the people that work there through her considerate and artful lens. They were about to lose their jobs, and Lanna found herself situated with an important role to document their enduring impact.
Although a former elite gymnast, Lanna has always been an advocate for the medium of photography. Her parents are both photo enthusiasts, meaning their house was littered with cameras used to document the family. After receiving a 35mm point and shoot camera for her birthday, this resultantly sparked an interest in the medium and she went on to study at University of Washington. After graduating, however, Lanna found herself working full-time at video production companies and eventually branched out into the marketing sphere for the next 10 years, pursuing the field of music and tech. The last job she had was at a boutique ad agency, which offered her the chance to shoot some of the campaigns. This was the very moment that she’d realised the possibilities for a career in photography. A short while later and after some formal training, she’d completed a photo program at Fashion Institute of Technology and delved into the new-found career path. She can happily say that she’s never looked back since.
For her latest project Astor Place Hairstylists, the photographer refers to the barbershop subject in particular as being “perfect” – notably for the visual and uniqueness that prevails. Not only does the interior provide a fascinating backdrop of handwritten and ageing signage, it’s also the working home of a whole host of colourful personalities and “one-of-a-kind hairdos”. Lanna adds that the interior hasn’t been updated in decades, which only adds to its charm and makes for an interesting picture no less. “The old New York barbershop has also attracted a huge number of celebrities over the years, which can be seen in all the photos and weathered news clippings that plaster the walls. It’s really impossible to not want to photograph this place.”
One of Lanna’s best moments of making this series was when she’d met Scott Einstein, one of the longest serving barbers alongside Speedy – who’s been working with Astor for over two decades. Lanna had the chance to meet his childhood friend who came in for a trim: “They told me stories about them growing up in St. Lucia, it was very heart-warming. Bella and Suzy showed me all the celebrities they’ve worked with and Big Mike (Mike Saviello) the shop’s manager gave me a tour of the backroom where he paints on his lunch breaks. That back room is really neat; it’s like his art gallery that leads into a recreation space where everyone goes to sing karaoke and take their breaks.”
Although Astor Place Hairstylists was on the brink of closure, it was fortunately saved in the 11th hour by a group of wealthy longtime customers, named Jonathan Trichter, Howard Wolfson and Jefrey Pollock. So this story turns out to be a success; Astor Place Hairstylists shows the rise and near-fall of a barbershop that’s at the crux of a local community, a place that’s now set for yet another 75 years of business. And Lanna’s pictures are here as a reminder of its impact.
By Lanna Apisukh