The Best Use Of GIFs In 2015: Brandon Tauszik
‘Tapered Throne’ pays homage to the staff, clients and culture of Oakland’s barbershops. Subtle and ground-breaking, these vignettes usher the GIF into the documentary tradition
Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of six Vantage articles of year-end “Best Of” proclamations. See the Best Nature Photos, the Best Photobooks, the Best Exhibition, the Best Portraiture and the Best SF Street Photographer of 2015.
2015 was the year that Brandon Tauszik unleashed his genius project Tapered Throne. It’s built on guile, fine craft and pioneering vision; it qualifies unequivocally for a year-end “Best Of” accolade.
Tapered Throne is a respectful and inquisitive look at the owners, customers and community of Oakland’s barbershops. Back in 2011, Tauszik set out to document African American-owned barbers as “one of the last American storefronts.” In a national economy that is squeezing small businesses, Tauszik noticed that barbershops in his hometown were, almost without exception, surviving, even thriving.
“There are no corporate chains like Fantastic Sams or Supercuts in Oakland, just an abundance of independently owned shops,” he says. “There is a strong sense of economic freedom and accomplishment shared among the barbers I’ve met here. They make their own hours, they find their own customers, and ultimately have a great deal of ownership over their professional lives.”
Barbershops are traditional and robust spaces and they’re going nowhere. Likened to beauticians and ministers, barbers are doctor-counselor-teacher-all rolled into one. For Tauszik — a white, teenage-ish looking guy with a scruffy mop of hair — the barbers’ leadership role only made sense after he spent time in the shops. He stopped caring about the exterior signage and focused on the men inside — exclusively African American staff and clientele. He conducted interviews.
“They described the differences between cutting straight and kinky hair,” says Tauszik. “They also stressed the importance of their spaces to the black community in Oakland. At that point, I took the project in a new direction — with the intent to create an ethnographic portrait of Oakland’s black barbers.”
After 3 years of diligent work, Tauszik did a soft launch of a designated Tapered Throne website. It features scores of GIFs each with the name of the barber, the name of the shop and a quote from the subject in the looped portrait. He started reaching out to editors, myself included (I’ve actually been writing versions of this article for nearly 12 months) to secure informed and slow coverage.
Tapered Throne was picked up by VICE, Slate and It’s Nice That, among others. Perhaps, the best coverage are Tauszik’s two interviews with Humble Arts and Ain’t Bad Magazine. All of these features coincided, I am proud to say, with Tapered Throne’s first inclusion in a gallery show. It was one of 14 documentary projects featured in Status Update, a Catchlight-produced exhibition about change and inequality in the San Francisco Bay Area, curated by Rian Dundon and I.
“These slow-looping, multi-hundred frame animations echo the deliberate pace of life in barbershops across Oakland,” wrote Dundon and I in the Status Update book. “The studied sacrament of hair cutting, where nearly imperceptible movements form a ritual of trust and concentration, is the focus here. As are the spaces where those actions take place. Tauszik displays a keen sensitivity to the movement of light and shadow — subtle changes that he later employs as points of focus in otherwise still images.”
To get these seamless loops is a time-intensive and considered effort. Tauszik first imports, sorts and slows down the footage in Premiere. Then he carefully finds moments that function well as continuous loops. After that, he uses Speedgrade to mask out the static areas, crop and color grade. Then he imports the clip into Photoshop where he sets the timing of the frames and compresses the image.
“It was a very tedious process which included a lot of trial and error,” says Tauszik. “I needed to find out what kind of actions made for organic loops, the ideal length of actions, and how to vary the frame rates for the video.”
Between sessions capturing video and audio interviews, Tauszik says he was reading “book after book” on barbershops. Academic papers too, including Elijah Anderson’s article White Space about the flux and associations of social spaces, including businesses, from predominantly white-owned to African American run.
“These materials informed how I would approach the next shop I visited, and the questions I would ask while shooting there,” he says.
All this to deal responsibly with the representation of a culture in which he did not grow up.
“I’ve had a couple people ask me if my whiteness invalidates the work in some way and I believe the answer is no,” reflects Tauszik. “It is true that the work was produced through the lens of my camera, my eye, and ultimately my worldview. As an image maker, you are obligated to think long and hard about how one’s subject matter can be portrayed with honesty and integrity. Indeed the potential is there for misrepresenting your subject, but I think it is a half baked notion that only a soldier should photograph war or only a Southerner should photograph the South.”
Tauszik feels that the barbers and customers’ quotes alongside an essay by Quincy T. Mills, Professor of Africana Studies, Vassar College — the man who literally wrote the book on black barbershops — makes Tapered Throne as much its subjects as his own.
Tauszik says, “I am the producer of this work, but I’m not the voice of this project.”
Mills writes, “With repeated strokes, barbers move the clippers up and down, back and forth across a myriad of heads and chins every day. But this is not mundane, wage-labor service work; this is a craft with a rich history. Whether they own the shop or rent a chair, barbers work for themselves, establishing a level of economic security that countless African Americans have been seeking since the end of slavery.”
“There are not too many places that we as black men can go and express ourselves anymore.” — Reggie, Top Hat, 2013.
“Haircuts are not commodities for African Americans,” continues Mills. “You cannot get one anywhere, from anyone, at any price. One’s barber knows how he likes his hair cut, how long to keep the sideburns, how to shape the taper. Outside of the particulars of one’s cut, barbers come to learn much about their clients. Information is divulged about family, work, recreation, and sometimes their greatest fears and joys.”
So you thought GIFs were just for LOLcats and FAIL memes, huh? Tauszik has, with one considered fell swoop, shown us how limited our imaginations had become. Seeing Tapered Throne it now seems obvious that the slow and antiquated Graphics Interchange Format (first introduced in 1987 and revived relatively recently) would be the perfect format to depict the almost meditative acts of a hair cutting.
GIF’s are a lossless compression format in which the image quality is retained even as the file size is reduced. But GIFs capacity for description is ultimately finite. Still, they persist; they’re the go-to. There’s some poetry to the fact that the ever steady GIF is used to describe the long-established barbershop culture.
For now, Tapered Throne shows audiences a healthy sector of the economy. The only way that barbershops will suffer is if clients move away and the only way that will happen will be through forces of gentrification that push out working families in a changing Oakland.
“There’s a steady influx of new residents to feed the Tech job market,” explains Tauszik. “It has put a great strain on resources, especially housing, diminishing affordable living spaces as the market rates are driven higher and higher. Historically black neighborhoods here are now rapidly gentrifying. Oakland’s African American population has declined by 22% between 2000 and 2010. Right now, there is still a strong African American presence in Oakland and these barbershops are still thriving. However, if Oakland’s African American population continues to drop, these shops will vanish.”
These GIFs are lovingly made and delicately rendered. They purposefully reflect the strength of Oakland’s African American community with the potential precariousness of its position given macro-economic forces that operate beyond our control.
“The barbers are all too familiar with the interplay between economic and social factors that lead to poverty in America’s inner cities. Many have overcome struggles, worked hard to learn a trade, and now earn a middle class wage for themselves and their families,” says Tauszik.
And if you’ll allow me, I’d like to close with Quincy T. Mills’ words.
“Behind these portraits are the aspirations of men who are not just making a living, but who see the value of their labors in the development of black community life,” he writes. “Like the GIF images themselves, these men and their shops are not static. Even as they stand behind their barber’s chair with arms propped up clutching the clippers, they are constantly in motion and in tune with the comings and goings of the people in their city.”
Brandon Tauszik is an Oakland based image-maker and principle at production company Sprinkle Lab. Vantage featured his project White Wax in November, 2015. Follow Brandon on Twitter, Tumblr, Vimeo and Instagram.