Caitlin Trainor says I’m the only one who can make discarded cigarette butts look beautiful. It’s a wonderful comment but not exactly true. Irving Penn did a series on cigarette butts in the 1960s.
I visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art whenever I can. It is a great inspiration for my work. During this trip I saw a photograph by Aaron Siskind and believe there is something of his style in my cigarette butt photographs. Too bad! I was never a big fan of his work. I always preferred the photographs of his contemporary, Harry Callahan.
Some of my favorite cigarette shoots happen while walking from my apartment on the West Side, crossing Central Park to the museum on Fifth Avenue. Today it took me more than an hour to walk across two avenues. The sidewalks were completely littered with cigarette butts in various states of deterioration. I’ve joked with my friend, the photographer Leslie Jean-Bart, that I could do my entire Smokers’ Detritus series on West 83rd street, it is so filled with the disgusting remains of smokers. Get close to the ground, as I do while shooting, and you’ll realize the curbs smell like well-used ashtrays. At least I’m finding useful to do with this trash. Hopefully I’m turning it into art.
Today I promised I wouldn’t leave the museum without writing in my journal. I have already been wandering for hours. I haven’t found a place to sit that inspires me. I decided gallery hosting Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware might be a good spot. I remembered there are benches near the painting.
I was right. Even a tour group passing through with a silly guide hasn’t been much of a distraction – primarily because I’m facing in the other direction – away from George Washington and towards a life size alabaster statue, nude, of a young girl. The light on it is nice. I thought the statue was more interesting than Washington and a bunch of people in a boat, which I hear from the guide is historically inaccurate.
The tour group finally leaves. I have the gallery to myself. Just me and the guard… I’ll check the ID of the statue. It was created by Erastus Dow Palmer and is named The White Captive and it’s marble, not alabaster. I don’t get the “captive” part. I guess there is a bit of fear and tension in her face. I think the statue was just an excuse by the artist to work with a young nude model. After reading reviews about the statue, first exhibited in 1859, I don’t think I’m the only one who questions the artist’s motives. I wonder who the model was?
Irving Penn did a photographic study of cigarette butts. He sent his assistants off into the New York City streets, looking for the appropriate debris. From what I’ve heard about Penn I’m sure he was very specific. Penn then laid out the cigarettes on a simple white backgrounds, photographing them with a large format camera – finally making gorgeous large platinum prints. I worked as a black-and-white printer for one of Penn’s former assistants, Gordon Munro, and during the my last year in his studio, I made a feeble attempt at producing platinum prints. I often wonder if Gordon was one of the assistants Penn sent out, searching for the perfect cigarette butt? Gordon and I are still in touch. I should ask him. Gordon is now deep into platinum printing, setting up a special darkroom for the project. He recently told me it would have been difficult to begin without my impeccable notes on mixing the platinum-paladium mixture and coating sheets of various qualities of paper. It’s always smart to hire a Virgo!
The Pace Gallery in Chelsea recently exhibited a variety of Penn’s photographic series – a few cigarette prints were there. I still love them but not as much as I did when I first saw these photographs decades ago. The prints are amazing but lack the grittiness I’ve come to love in my own series. Photographing the cigarette butts in place – where they’ve been discarded – the dirt, hair, seeds – is a necessary part of the image. Most important is the texture of the sidewalks and streets – the ground beneath my subjects. It adds so much to the images.
At Penn’s exhibition there were a few prints of cigarettes in situ. Penn had a camera adapted allowing him to get close to the cigarettes in the street. It’s obvious why Penn stuck mostly to the studio. The streets were not his place. These pictures are not special. Penn needed more control. In my mind no photographer in history has matched his artistic genius in the studio.
Another tour group. This time they’re distracting. I know I said the gallery has been empty but all this time there has been, shall I say, a heavy-set woman sitting at the opposite end of my bench. I didn’t want to mention her before because I was going to call her a “grey blob.” That didn’t seem nice. But she’s still there and now she’s part of my history. I think she’s a little “off.” The woman is dressed a lot better than I am. That’s not saying much. She has five of the older tin museum entrance buttons clipped to her collar and three of the newer entrance stickers stuck to the lapel. I guess she never cleans this coat. I thought I was weird because I kept a few of the tin buttons as souvenirs! She must love this place!
I notice my knees are dirty and my left knee is bleeding out a few small cuts. Throughout the year I wear shorts as much as possible. It’s difficult to explain. Now who’s the strange person in the museum! I wonder what kind of diseases I might get while kneeling on the filthy New York City ground, photographing the used cigarettes?
Siskind and Penn. Texture and beauty. The inspiration of art. It’s what my Smokers’ Detritus series is all about. In the beginning, it was meant to be a few pictures for Instagram but while wandering the city, finding these interesting subjects everywhere – in puddles, cracks in the sidewalk, under bus stop benches – I couldn’t stop shooting. It is the debris of real people – crushed or flicked. These bits of smokers’ detritus give hints about the past owners. Each day I comb the streets I learn more about these smoking people. It helps me see in a new way. It makes me wonder… if Erastus Palmer included a nightgown in the sculpture, why isn’t the model wearing it?