Review by Melanie Chapman •
Considering that photographer Rohina Hoffman’s day job is as a neurologist studying what goes on in a person’s mind, it should come as no surprise that her first monograph she would focus on what comes out of a person’s head. Specifically, what grows out of a person’s scalp, and how it serves as a form of self-expression.
When approaching a photo-book for the initial viewing, I usually prefer to skip anything written and just look at the images first. However, in the case of Hair Stories, reading the artist’s notes helped me more fully appreciate the 38 color photographs that follow. Similarly, researching Hoffman’s background, helped me appreciate the successful marriage of her medical training at Brown University with her interest in photography nurtured at the Rhode Island School of Design.
During the process of photographing and interviewing nearly three dozen women for this project, Hoffman discovered “…hair is a language, a shield, and a trophy. Hair is a construct reflecting our identity, history, femininity, personality, our innermost feelings of self-doubt, aging, vanity and self-esteem.”
Gender studies scholar Esther R. Berry writes in her Introductory essay “Brushed Off: On Why Hair Matters” about historical feminized valuation of hair tracing back to biblical times as well as the depersonalization of shaving heads of prisoners in concentration camps. She adds “Hair stories become lifelines to a more intimate understanding of our lives, our culture, our histories. our politics and ourselves, especially in the face of grief, pain, and loss.”
The success of Hair Stories is not just the clear concept behind the work, but the beauty of the photographs themselves. Women of varying ages and complexions allow themselves to be photographed with an intimacy that invites the viewer to gaze back at eyes that peek out from long dark tresses, challenges the viewer to look away from the serene expression of a recent chemo patient, and compels the viewer to stroke the soft white hair of an unadorned elderly woman.
Some photographs convey the joy of motion, others offer mystery by concentrating on the tops of heads. Some of the portraits celebrate intentional declarations of independence via bright colorful extensions or total acceptance of their crown of gray. As a photographer, Hoffman finds unique ways to keep her images fresh and compelling; shooting predominantly in natural light, sometimes utilizing window reflections to add ethereal poetry within the frame, sometimes masking the participants face behind the display of curls or wigs.
The text which accompanies each photograph offers a greater understanding of what hair represents to each woman, and thus provides the viewer with the opportunity to appreciate not only this body of beautiful images, but to contemplate for ourselves what role such an inherent form of self-expression means to each of us.
For those with a smartphone and a bit of technical savvy, Ms. Hoffman includes a supplemental feature: QR codes which offer the viewer a chance to hear excerpts of audio interviews of each woman she photographed. She humorously notes that changes in technology make render these QR codes obsolete in the not too distant future, so she includes a web address as well: womenshairstories.com
Whether you seek a new body of portraits to add to your collection, or appreciate the conceptual variations of self-expression illustrated in Hair Stories, it is a beautiful book to hold and behold. Dare I say, it will GROW on you.
Editor’s note: Hair Stories was juried into the LACP 2019 Photographic Book Competition.
Hair Stories – Rohina Hoffman
Photographer: Rohina Hoffman, born in India, currently resides in Los Angeles, California, USA.
Published by Damiani sri, Bologna, Italy, copyright 2019
Introduction/Essay: Emily Lambert-Clements, Esther R. Berry
Hard cover, sewn binding, 38 full page color photos, printed 2018 in Italy by Grafiche Damiani
Design and separations by Caleb Cain Marcus, Luminositylab.com, NY