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Celebrating the Timeless Art of Beauty Salon Photography

Long before the Internet made nearly everything instantly accessible, beauty salons used photography to advertise and promote the styles of the day. Part headshot, part beauty photo, these photographs fell squarely into the realm of commercial photography.

Utilizing studio lighting and a basic backdrop, women became mannequins in the truest sense of the word. Here they modeled hairdos, their faces made up with “natural cosmetics” and their shoulders bare — nothing to distract the viewer from the focus: hair, hair, hair!

The photographs often hung in windows until they discolored from exposure to the sun, or were framed and hung indoors where they could be protected. Customers often tore them from magazines and brought them in to suggest the look they wanted to go for, then brought them home and carefully them to mirrors so that they could painstakingly achieve this look on their own.

Hair, like all fashions, was often determined by trend — a new movie, TV show, or high-fashion moment that had caught on big — like Farrah Fawcett’s famed “Charlie’s Angels” wings that took the ‘70s by storm. But who were the people behind the photographs, those who inspired us to point and nod, paying good money to have a stylist give us a good “punk rock” chop?

The new book Fünf Finger Föhn Frisur (Edition Patrick Frey) answers that question with a glorious compendium of photographs made by Gaechter+Clahsen for Zürich hairdresser Elsässer Pour Dames. Swiss photographers Peter Gaechter and Bettina Clahsen sounded their studio in 1984, dedicating themselves to the timeless art of beauty salon photography.

Here, in this sumptuous volume of black and white head shots, we are treated to a bevy of styles that rival the very best glamour photographs. The images, originally published in catalogues available at Otto Elsasser’s high-end salon, which was founded in 1929 and catered to an upscale clientele that included the Zurich ladies who lunch, visiting aristocrats and movie stars like Sophia Loren.

What makes the work remarkable is there is not a smidge of self-satisfied irony: everything and everyone is utterly sincere, giving it a camp twist that gives it an edge. Though many of the styles are clearly dated, they are still quite chic, though that may be a testament to the work of Gaechter+Clahsen’s luscious photography.

Their images perfectly capture the cult and culture of beauty that so many adore, a desire to not only be beautiful, but to be au courant. Hair, like clothing and cosmetics, is not only an expression of self but a symbol of status that signifies which group we call our own. Like body language, it conveys messages without ever saying a word, transmitting at the speed of sight who we think we are. For those with the wherewithal to indulge in the freshest cut, the latest style, the chicest ‘do, Fünf Finger Föhn Frisur is a delightful reminder of all the photograph can do.

All images: © Peter Gaechter and Bettina Clahsen

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