In Search of the Great American Beard

PHOTO: Photographer Brock Elbank and skin cancer campaigner Jimmy Niggles, pictured, want to document "the Great American Beard." PlayMr Elbank
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They are going in search of "the great American beard."

Photographer Mr Elbank and charity campaigner Jimmy Niggles have already photographed and featured some of the most impressive beards in the world. Now, after the success of their "Beard" exhibition at London’s historic Somerset House this month, they plan to tackle the American continent in pursuit of the world’s ultimate facial hair.

PHOTO: Brandon Baker and Frank Moon were photographed for a series on beards by photographer Brock Elbank. Mr Elbank
Brandon Baker and Frank Moon were photographed for a series on beards by photographer Brock Elbank.

The pair hopes to photograph famous beards, like those belonging to Jeff Bridges, Leonardo Di Caprio, Zach Galifianakis and Brad Pitt. The Hollywood stars would add to an already impressive collection of beard photography from around the world, marking the return of the beard into mainstream popular culture.

"We thought we needed to seize the moment before beards reach their peak, in terms of fashionability," said exhibition curator Stephen Doherty, from Somerset House.

In recent years, beards have been making a steady comeback, coinciding with the rise of the hipster. From Brooklyn, New York, to the East End of London, beards are now in.

By 2013, some style watchers suggested that contemporary culture had already reached "peak-beard," but the trend does seem to be displaying determined longevity.

“I think there's a reaction against the trend for metrosexuality," Doherty said. "Men are reclaiming their facial hair in an attempt to stamp a bit of their own masculinity back on things."

PHOTO: Tattooist Miles Better and drag queen Stefan Bostrom were photographed for a series on beards by photographer Brock Elbank. Mr Elbank
Tattooist Miles Better and drag queen Stefan Bostrom were photographed for a series on beards by photographer Brock Elbank.

What’s clear from the 80 images on display as part of the "Beard" exhibition is that beards are no longer just the domain of lumberjacks and old men. There are young men, fashion-conscious hipsters, men of faith, businessmen, fishermen, a cross-dresser and even a woman.

"Beards can make an ordinary-looking person look more attractive," Doherty said.

The face of the exhibition is Jimmy Niggles and his self-described “very thick, rich mahogany, very natural, full beard." Niggles is a charity campaigner and social media "Beard Idol," who first grew a beard following the death of his close friend from skin cancer.

"We use it as a conversation starter to encourage people to get a skin check," Niggles said. "And five years on we've started this thing called "Beard Season," which has taken off around the world and we've now got hundreds of thousands of people growing beards every winter," he said.

PHOTO: Australian Jimmy Niggles and actor John Hurt were photographed for a series on beards by photographer Brock Elbank. Mr Elbank
Australian Jimmy Niggles and actor John Hurt were photographed for a series on beards by photographer Brock Elbank.

To support this cause, Mr Elbank started up #Project60, photographing 60 people with beards to raise awareness for "Beard Season." The campaign has gained such global notoriety, Niggles said, "every week we receive on average one or two emails from people saying they've met one of our beard ambassadors and had a skin check, which probably saved their life, which is a pretty great thing."

The next stage of the follicle-finding journey for both Niggles and Mr Elbank is their quest to find "the Great American Beard." They hope to take their portraits to Los Angeles later this year.