Photographs of a historic Harlem, New York, barbershop welcome you home
Moody and authentic, Jeffrey Henson Scales’ ‘House’ is black and white and beautiful
Located just half a block from the legendary home of bebop, Minton’s Playhouse, House’s Barber Shop did business inside a plate-glass storefront in Harlem, New York, for nearly 70 years. Luminaries such as Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, Lee Morgan and Max Roach would come to House’s for a fresh cut before a show. Word had it that Malcolm X, whose mosque was on Lenox Avenue and West 116th Street, would frequent the spot. House’s served everyone from musicians, artists and scientists, to bus drivers, postal workers and scoundrels for the better part of the 20th century.
Founder Jesse House set up shop on Seventh Avenue and West 118th Street when he returned to the neighborhood after serving as a GI during World War II. When he retired, his son, David, kept the shop going until David’s own retirement in 2004. David died a year ago, but before he died, he learned that House’s Barber Shop would be preserved for future generations in a book of photographs.
The book, simply titled House (SPQR Editions), presents the work of Jeffrey Henson Scales, currently the photography editor of The New York Times Sunday Review. His pictures, shot between 1986 and 1992, provide a front-row view of life inside the barbershop. With jazz music wafting through the room, we enter a world where men of all ages share their lives while getting a shape-up, a fade, or even a conk.
House’s is now gone. But with the publication of House, Scales gives back all that he received those years inside the shop. The book cover tells it all: a lone figure standing inside the picture window, with his back to us, unidentifiable yet emblematic of cool, crisp, style and grace. A line of three empty barber chairs is behind him, ready for the first customers of the day.
“I used to call that picture Morning. It was probably 9 o’clock, 10 o’clock, maybe open not quite yet, and I’d be sitting there with David House,” Scales said. “Somebody else would come in, have some coffee, read the paper. [The man in the photograph] is just somebody that came in, he’s the proverbial ‘man.’ ”
Scales believed the shot was the obvious choice for the cover. “I worked a lot in … publication design, record cover design, so I know how that process works. What makes a great cover is something that has simple, straightforward, graphic impact where you can read the picture very quickly — the picture identifies what it’s about and where you intend to take people … a little bit of mystery is good because the idea is to get people to take the next step: open the page, buy the product, plug in their record player.”
Thomas Roma, who has authored 15 books over the past 20 years, partnered with his wife Anna and son Giancarlo to create SPQR Editions. An independent book publishing house based in Brooklyn, New York, the company debuted its first five titles, including House, in late 2016. Roma didn’t confirm the covers until all five books were on press in Verona, Italy, eventually revealing them via Instagram. “We asked authors to wait to see what the cover looks like so that the book could be born,” said Roma, a professor in Columbia University’s photography department. “The cover of House really speaks very powerfully to what’s inside the book. The man standing there with his back to the rest of the barbershop looking out. And the title, House, I mean, how appropriate, how wonderful that it happens to be the proprietor’s name. It is a house. It’s a home.”
In 1985, Jeffrey Henson Scales and his wife Meg moved on to the block. “We wanted to live in Harlem because of the historical importance of the community for African-Americans in this country,” Scales said. “I had never lived in an urban black community, so that was a new experience for me.”
Born in San Francisco and raised in Berkeley, California, Scales grew up in an artistic family. His father, Emmet Scales Jr., an audio engineer, was one of the managers at the hungry i nightclub in San Francisco during the late 1950s and early ’60s. He kept a reel-to-reel in the trunk of his red Chrysler 300, and used to drive around town recording local musicians. His mother, Barbara, was a painter and filmmaker who used to take young Jeffrey with her to graduate classes at the University of California-Berkeley.
“In a certain way, I was groomed to be an artist,” Scales said. His father gave him a 35mm Leica, his first camera, when he was 11. At 13, he began to photograph Black Panther Party leaders Bobby Seale, Stokely Carmichael and Eldridge Cleaver, which were published in The Black Panther Paper between 1968 and 1971. By the age of 14, his work was published in Time.
His love for music put him at the center of the 1970s creative scene, working as tour manager for Minnie Riperton. “Part of the job was, carry all the money, all the plane tickets, and in that same briefcase was the Hasselblad [C/M 500 camera],” Scales revealed. “Moving around with her, I would also take pictures of various situations that would come up. For many years, I was a tour manager, a roadie and that impelled me to want to do album covers because those were the people I was around.”
He chose the Hasselblad because it was of course state of the art — and the square format camera was perfect for album covers. Its waist-level viewfinder required the photographer to look down (rather than head-on) to take the picture, providing a kind of discretion that allowed subjects to feel at ease.
“Becoming invisible for me is one of the very important things about being a photographer,” he explained. “As a street photographer, that’s one of the things you have to do in the choreography of taking pictures, where people don’t see you and in many formal portrait situations you want to break down so that the subject is not feeling as though they are standing in front of the camera necessarily, but there’s some interaction.”
Scales got to know the neighborhood by taking pictures. “Part of learning about where you live is by photographing the faces of the people who live there. My street photography is a lot of portraits walking around Harlem, just looking at the blocks, the place, the people,” he said.
Every day, Scales would pass by House’s, an outsider looking in. “I was never a big fan of barbershops,” he revealed. “In the ’60s, in Berkeley, I was always having to confront my father because he wanted me to cut my afro. That was always a battle.”
Yet something about House’s called to him. “It was so vibrant inside,” he said. “So steeped in nostalgia and the history of Harlem.” Then one day, David House approached him on the street “You’re a photographer?” he asked. “ Well, maybe you’ll take some pictures of my shop.”
Scales agreed. “I started going in there and I was in there for years and years. Being in the barbershop was interesting because the amount of loud talking, politicizing, conversations, you learn a lot about the people in the neighborhood: who’s there, who’s doing what, who’s got respect, who’s probably scamming. The misogyny level was a little high for my personal comfort, but it was what it was.”
When he could, he would find a way to kick something back to the shop. At the time, Scales had a commercial photography business, working primarily for magazines and record companies. Inside House’s, he shot an album cover for Earl “Fatha” Hines, and an ad for Columbia Records that ran in Billboard during Black History Month. “I used to try to employ as many people [from the neighborhood] as I could on some of those larger productions,” he said.
Last spring, while Scales was writing an essay for the book, David House died. In the essay, he explained that the offer to photograph the shop came about because House thought he might lose his lease and wanted photographs for posterity. “His invitation at the time was a welcoming into the community,” Scales wrote. “It is something I will never forget.”