My career has been in a slow transition, moving from commercial to fine art photography. I’m not sure exactly when this began but it was about a decade ago. My first memory of the change is a portrait of New York City Ballet principal dancer, Ana Sophia Scheller. It was taken during a catalog shoot for Discount Dance Supply at a friend’s fashion studio in Chelsea.
Ana Sophia sat down on the couch next to where I was working, photographing another dancer on the ten foot wide white seamless background. The cover over the skylight above me loosened, sending a shaft of soft daylight on to Ana Sophia’s face. It was beautiful. I finished up with the dancer on set and turned towards Ana Sophia, asking her not to move. I “needed” to take her portrait. I said that. She was perfect, sitting there exactly as she was. I asked my client, Nina Vance, if I could take a short break to photograph Ana Sophia. Nina is great. She immediately agreed. Nina understood what I saw in the streaming daylight. I think to this day Ana Sophia still uses that photo for her promotion.
Daylight! That was the change I needed. It’s not that I had never shot using daylight. I’ve taken thousands of pictures outdoors in natural light. But this was in a studio. I’m sure I had done indoor formal portraits in the past using daylight but that probably was in the 70s and early 80s – back when I thought I was an artist – back before I realized I needed to earn a living – before I became a commercial photographer. That was over 30 years ago. It seems like a very long time ago. It was time to retire the strobe lights and see what a more natural world had to offer.
I have a friend with a beautiful daylight studio. Over the years I’ve given him a great deal of my time, helping him with his photography and responding to his questions with business advice. I hoped he would let me use his space on occasion when he had a quiet afternoon. Inexplicably it didn’t work out. He said, “No!” I was quite upset. He doesn’t get much advice from me anymore.
As it turned out this was a blessing in disguise. My apartment has nice light coming through the windows but I had never considered using it as a daylight shooting space. I have too much stuff and the windows are filled with my jungle. I have shot in my apartment hundreds of times – not only personal portraits but also advertising and editorial shoots for PLAYBOY, Essence, Ladies Home Journal, American Ballet Theatre, Dance Magazine and dozens of other companies. Those shoots were always with studio strobes or tungsten “hot” lights. How would I convert to a daylight studio.
I believe it began five years ago with Zarina Stahnke. I’ve spoken about her in past essays. She wasn’t the first model I photographed using my apartment’s natural light. That was Naomi Rusalka. I’m not sure why my new daylight experiment didn’t begin with Naomi. I was mostly shooting outdoors at that time and I guess I wasn’t ready to move the shoots into my apartment. It was Zarina who made me love my home as a background and truly see those photographs as works of art. I haven’t looked back and interestingly enough, I did do a portrait shoot of Zarina and Naomi together – though not with daylight!
You might wonder how all of this leads to photographing cigarette butts in the dirty streets of New York City? I mostly take baby steps as I move through my career. Going from shooting ballerinas wearing leotards in a studio to crawling on the ground searching for the perfect cigarette butt would have been too great an artistic leap. I needed to first go through the process of outdoor portraits, mirror portraits, daylight portraits in my apartment and recently the Intimate Portrait series. After photographing my muses, sitting on their laps, the camera only inches from their faces – the Smokers’ Detritus series actually felt like the natural progression.
My business and personal lives have meshed together as one being. Models come over for tea. We shoot for hours – thousands of images. Finally we sit and have lunch together – my hummus and homemade jam – discussing the world and details of our personal lives. The afternoon sessions feel more like a visit from a close friend than a photo shoot. The question now became how to integrate the cigarette portraits into my daily life.
Long walks. I take a lot of them. B&H camera to Strands Bookstore – down Second Avenue to Chinatown for lunch – up through Soho to The Village – hop on the C train back up to the Upper West Side. The places and routes vary but there are always endless cigarette butts to be photographed along these pathways. I’ve learned to combine the walks with my photography for the Smokers’ Detritus series. I give myself extra time, knowing on almost every block I will find an interesting butt to photograph.
A few weeks ago I had an endless list of errands to run. I decided to give myself an assignment. I had to photograph a cigarette butt at every location I visited.
#1: My apartment at 165 W. 83rd Street. I walked out the front door and realized I should begin with the sidewalk outside my apartment building. I knew I’d find some discarded cigarettes out there. My street is like one giant ashtray – the remains of smokers in a continuous trail from Amsterdam to Columbus. People go up on my rooftop to smoke, tossing their lit butts over the railing when finished. I imagine some of the butts on the street today made that ten story leap. There are two trees in front of my building. Smokers obviously find their soil an attractive ashtray. It’s disgusting but it works for me. I find the combination of human and nature’s detritus lends to a beautiful image.
#2: Mike’s Lumber at 88th Street and Broadway. I headed over to Mike’s Lumber store on 88th Street. It has been an Upper West Side fixture for many years. The lumber for every bookshelf in my apartment came from that store. I have a lot of bookshelves. I now need a few 1″ x 12″ boards to build a small storage space in my hallway – above the front door. I have nine-and-a-half foot ceilings. That spot has always seemed like dead space. The location is a perfect place to store my suitcase and a bunch of studio backgrounds. Hiding the collapsing walls with a nice wood-stained shelf will transform a sterile place into something much better.
The wood at Mike’s was too expensive. I should have known. Everything in my neighborhood now is pricey. I stepped outside to see what kind of deceased cigarettes I could find. I photographed a few selections but my favorite was the butt caught in between a metal gate and the sidewalk. The light reflected off the dirty metal door was beautiful.
#3: Terese Capucilli near 91st Street and Broadway. I walked uptown on Broadway to my next stop. Half a block in front of me I saw some woman doing dance poses in the street. It took a moment before I realized it was Terese, who upon seeing the camera around my neck began her posing to attract my attention. I am so dumb! I should have taken a few snapshots of her for this essay and then photographed the nearby cigarettes on the street. But I didn’t. We chatted for a few minutes and moved on. I wouldn’t make that mistake again.
#4: Time Warner Cable on 96th Street and Broadway. Time Warner had recently upgraded my cable box. I have a big new flat screen TV and was told I needed something more high tech. The old cable box had to go back to the store. It was supposed to be a quick drop off. Things don’t always work out as planned. I had to take a number and wait. At least there was my assignment to help pass the time.
I’ve shot cigarette butts many times at this intersection, 96th and Broadway while walking home after dance shoots up at Barnard. For some reason, on this day there wasn’t much to choose from. As with all photographic assignments an artist doesn’t always have perfect choices. I shot the best butt I could find. I’ve been doing a sub-series of manhole covers within the Smokers’ Detritus project and this image works.
It wasn’t quite as easy getting the shot of the Time Warner store. The people walking out of the store noticed my camera and obviously weren’t happy I had pointed my camera in their direction. One woman covered her face. In New York City there has always been an issue with illegal immigrants when photographing in the streets. They don’t want a record of their presence to exist. I can understand that. That fear has grown with the prevalence of digital cameras and the all-encompassing internet.
#5: 96th Street IRT subway station. I finally returned my cable box and crossed to the middle of Broadway, heading to the subway, planning to take the #1 train downtown. I stopped outside of the station, expecting to find dozens of butts on the ground. Subway stops are a great place to find subjects for my series. There’s no smoking on the trains and people toss their cigarettes, often still lit, before walking into the station. There’s an endless selection outside of every stop. I searched the ground and was surprised to find few choices. As I knelt on the ground to capture two butts sitting together, a subway worker walked up to me with a broom and pan. No wonder the sidewalks were clean! He was sweeping up all the butts.
He waited patiently as I photographed the two cigarettes. I showed him the images. He thought the pictures were interesting and we talked for a short time about modern art and photography. I explained how much I love the textures of New York City sidewalks and streets – something few people notice.
Later, while researching this essay, I tried to find out what kind of stone was used for the tiles at the 96th Street station. They seemed special. I couldn’t find an answer but I did learn they had been ruined by peoples’ used spit-out-gum even before the station was completed. The writer of this online article called the people of New York City “pigs.” Having spent so many hours crawling on the sidewalks of New York I have to agree.
I said goodbye to the subway man as he swept up my cigarettes. I managed to capture him in front of the station, cleaning up the last bits of garbage before he walked into the station. I quickly followed and hopped on the train.
#6: Subway exit at 19th Street and 7th Avenue. I took the #1 train down to the 18th Street stop, sitting at the back of the train so I could depart at 19th Street. I knew there would be endless butts at the top of the subway stairs, not because of the subway smokers but due to the fact the subway exits at the famous Peter McManus pub. I spent many evenings there from 1982 – 1993 after photographing rehearsals at American Ballet Theatre’s studios a few blocks away. McManus has great french fries and it’s one of the few places you can get a Guiness on tap.
I wasn’t disappointed when I got to the top of the stairs. There was cigarette debris all over the place. When working on the Smokers’ Detritus project one thing I look for in particular is used matches. Since the advent of cheap BIC lighters not many people use matches anymore. Many years ago I collected matchbooks from every restaurant I visited. People smoked more then and it was nice to have a light readily available for guests. I also had an oven with a finicky pilot light. Most times I needed to use a match to get the oven started. I still have that oven! Now I use a BIC barbeque lighter to get the oven going. It’s a good tool. I don’t singe my eyelashes anymore.
I found a well-worn Marlboro next to a single used match. The textures were beautiful. I took my shot and moved on down the street.
#7: New York Live Arts at 219 W. 19th Street. I walked halfway down the block to New York Live Arts. I needed to drop off a hard drive to Kyle Maude with the images I shot a few days before of Bill T Jones’ new piece, Analogy/Lance: Pretty. This new project is the story of Bill’s nephew, Lance T. Briggs. It is an intense show and I’ll likely write a separate essay about it in the near future.
Before 2011, New York Live Arts was known as Dance Theater Workshop. It’s where my career as a dance photographer began. In 1981 and 1982 I shot the the likes of Laura Dean, Charlie Moulton and Susan Marshall. The first exhibition of my dance photography was held in their gallery in 1982.
The black box theater space felt like old New York – raw, intimate and probably somewhat grimy. I could get close to the dancers – understand the reasons behind their choreography. I’ve been searching for that feeling again recently, fighting against the new commercialism surrounding the dance world.
There’s not much grime outside of NYLA. They keep their sidewalks clean. It’s a far cry from the dirty streets of New York City in the early 80s.. A well-worn Parliament touched the filter of another discarded cigarette. This mix of detritus was perfect. I was lucky the brooms missed this pair.
#8: Duggal Photography Labs on 23rd Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. Duggal is another place where I have a long history. During the late 1970s and early 80s it’s where I had my slide film developed and the 11″ x 14″ color prints made for my first fashion portfolios. By the 1990s I had moved on to other labs. A decade ago the use of digital photography ended my use of the labs altogether.
As I’ve begun to sell more of my work as fine art, I’m looking to get the best quality scans of my film. The place for that appears to be Duggal. The scans they produce for me are amazing. Every detail in the negative appears in the scan. I see things in the images I never knew existed. I was a master printer but had no idea my darkroom prints were missing that much detail. Duggal’s scans are expensive and they’re worth every penny. I’m creating 17″ x 25″ prints. I want them to be perfect.
After dropping off two negatives for scanning I looked down on the wide sidewalk in front of Duggal and “scanned” the ground for my next subject. Duggal is a very professional place. I bet they sweep their sidewalks every morning.
I found my butt. The light wasn’t right but I had to get the shot. Looking at the photo now, as I write this essay, I wonder if I should consider varying the light I use for this series?
#9: Home Depot on 23rd Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. I ran across the street to Home Depot, still on my search for lumber. On their website it said the store carried 4′ long, 1″ x 12″ boards. Just what I needed to build my new shelf. In general the 23rd Street Home Depot sucks! There is no correlation between what’s on the website and what’s in the store. Of course they didn’t have the lumber I wanted. The sales person told me I could purchase the 4′ boards online and have them delivered to the store at no charge. That will have to be my solution.
Home Depot doesn’t care about their sidewalks as much as Duggal. There was a lovely selection of butts to choose from. Another one of my favorite places to find used cigarettes is within sidewalk grates. I love the patterns and the way steel reflects the light.
I photographed the no-smoking sign on the store’s exit door noticing dozens of cigarette remains on the nearby sidewalk. I wondered why this sign was on the exit door? Home Depot’s entrance mentions nothing about smoking.
Hmmm! Spying a match with a head looking much like a ladybug I had to kneel down and capture a second butt.
#10: The Union Square Greenmarket. I headed down Broadway, passing the American Ballet Theatre’s studios on 19th Street. This always brings back memories. I photographed in those studio hundreds of times from 1982 – 1992. The Greenmarket wasn’t on my “errand” list but I stopped to photograph one cigarette on the tiled thoroughfare. This farmers market saved my life forty summers ago. The Union Square Greenmarket opened during the summer of 1976, a couple of months before I moved to New York City that August. My first apartment was at 139 E. 13th Street, just around the corner from Union Square. The neighborhood was very different at that time and I was a poor, starving artist. My decisions about money always came down to film or food?
The Greenmarket was a godsend. Farmers markets were very different in 1976 than they are today. They used to be places where one could buy fresh produce at reasonable prices. It was great for both the consumer and the farmers. Skipping the retail store as middleman, farmers could sell their products for less and still make a larger profit, also with selling their discolored or bruised vegetables – items the stores would not take. That’s a far cry from the Greenmarket today where fruits and vegetables are sold for a premium. Fortunately I can still go to the Greenmarket at 175th and Broadway. When I need piles of tomatoes, eggplants, onions, and peppers to make my famous vegetable sauce that’s my go-to place. It’s not in a trendy neighborhood so the prices are fair and reasonable. The same vegetables as Union Square – only half the price.
Coming from Chicago I wasn’t used to New York City food prices. The Union Square market allowed me to eat healthy. I’ll never forget the joy it brought me, living in New York, buying produce in the street directly from farmers’ trucks. Union Square is a different place now but I’ll never lose those special memories.
I didn’t buy anything today. In the fall I sometimes buy a few apples. This changed market reminds me of how The City has become so expensive – the difficulty young artists encounter trying to create here while surviving financially. I thought I had it bad during my first years living here. I didn’t know how lucky I was. At least I could survive well enough to live and create my art.
#11: Behind the Grace Church – Abby Wen Wu. I heard my iphone chiming. I was behind the famous Grace Church at 11th Street and 4th Avenue. I had meant to walk down Broadway but somehow turned instead down 4th Avenue. It’s easy to do that at Union Square. 4th Avenue is kind of an anomaly, running only from 8th Street up to 14th. Above it becomes Park Avenue – below Lafayette.
I sat down on the back steps of the church and pulled the phone out of my backpack. I’ve been inside the Grace Church one time, decades ago to photograph the wedding of CBS news anchor, Michelle Marsh. The text was from Abby Wen Wu. Abby’s a new friend and a muse. Originally “Cigarette essay #10″ was supposed to be about our friendship. When she’s in front of my camera I’m always amazed by what comes out of her soul. I wrote one page about her before I stopped. I need to see her again before I write her essay.
I looked down to the sidewalk and saw the remains of a Chinese cigarette on the ground. How perfect! Abby could now be part of essay #10 afterall.
#12: Leslie Simpson at 10th Street and 4th Avenue. I wasn’t positive I had the perfect cigarette shot to go with my image of Abby’s text message. Walking half a block to the corner of 10th Street, I saw a nice grouping of cigarettes in the dirt surrounding a nearby tree. I was crawling on the ground as I often do for this series, looking for a combination of butts and detritus, when I hear a sweet voice calling out my name.
It was Leslie Simpson. Somehow she recognized me crawling on the ground, probably looking more like a crazed homeless person than a professional photographer. I got up, and even though I had been on the filthy New York City sidewalk Leslie still gave me a wonderful long hug. I felt the dirt of the shooting day wash away with her warmth.
We spoke for a few minutes. Leslie is on the top of my list of people I want to shoot for my Intimate Portrait series. The pictures I take of her will be beautiful. Leslie and I parted ways but before I got back to my cigarettes in the dirt I realized I needed to take her portrait on this spot. I wouldn’t make the same mistake I had made with Terese. I called Leslie’s name and she walked back to me. I quickly explained my day’s assignment and took a few quick portraits. We hugged again, saying we would get together soon, before heading in opposite directions.
#13: Petsmart at Bleecker and Broadway. I don’t know why this day felt like the 1970s? Maybe it was because this was the first time since that era I’ve spent the day photographing people in the street. New York has changed a great deal since I moved here in 1976. The place where Petsmart now stands, not far from Houston Street, used to be the main area where bums and “winos” hung out in the 70s. It’s not far from the Bowery Mission. Few people lived in the nearby buildings. I think Mapplethorpe’s apartment was nearby. Only crazy artists lived in this neighborhood. There were no retail businesses along Broadway. The streets were quiet night and day except for the delivery trucks transferring goods in and out of the wholesale fabric and garment warehouse lofts lining the avenue.
Today this stretch of Broadway from 8th Street down to Canal is one of the busiest retail shopping districts in Manhattan. Still, something about the pedestrians in the street felt like the 70s – down-beaten and melancholy. Is this the future of New York City? The streets in this area are generally dirty. That hasn’t changed in forty years. A lot of people equals a lot of garbage. I had no problem finding my discarded butts in front of Petsmart.
I love finding butts in puddles. The water adds texture and depth to the images. The difficult part is the reflections, often my own, and how to incorporate them into the photographs. Cigarette remains are very durable. They hold up well in water.
I needed to buy Fancy Feast for my four cats. They love it. The food seems relatively healthy for canned stuff. The “Fish and Shrimp Feast,” with whole prawns, looks so good I could eat it myself. Andrea Mohin, the dance photographer for the New York Times, calls Fancy Feast “kitty crack.” With a few of the flavors I believe she’s right.
I don’t know what it is about this particular Petsmart but their shelves of Fancy Feast are often bare. A salesperson always tells me a shipment is arriving the next day. How is that possible? I think they might need a new manager. Fortunately, I only needed to buy a dozen cans. Only a few of my cats’ favorite flavors were on hand. I bought what I could and continued my voyage downtown.
#14: Morganstern’s near Rivington and Bowery. Morganstern’s wasn’t on my errand list. It happened to be along the route I was taking to my main destination. I had never heard of this place. I only stopped to figure out what kind of product warranted a line of people 40 deep? Ice cream! Is any dessert worth a thirty minute wait? I don’t think so. Obviously I’m not a typical New Yorker. I won’t wait in a 30 minute line for anything.
I stopped, so I photographed. Two cigarette butts lay on the ground beneath me. I didn’t kneed to wait in a line to take my pictures. I moved on.
#15: The corner of Delancey and Eldridge Streets. I once again headed downtown through the Lower East Side. At the corner of Delancey and Eldridge sat an empty Marlboro carton. It was the first time I had found a discarded carton since I began my Smokers’ Detritus series. I could not pass this opportunity by.
The packaging glowed against the dirty street. The leaves seemed to be a bit of an anomaly. There weren’t any trees nearby. It was 6:30 in the evening but for some reason there were few pedestrians in the street. I wondered how different this intersection must have looked at dinner time one hundred years earlier, endless pushcarts, shoppers, and horse-drawn carts filling the tenement lined street.
#16: 118A Eldridge. Vanessa’s Dumpling House. I walked down Eldridge and came to Vanessa’s Dumpling House. Abby Wen Wu told me I should eat there. Abby knows I am in love with inexpensive Chinese dumpling shops. I was hungry. I looked inside. The place was filled with Hipsters. It didn’t fell authentic. I already have a favorite dumpling place in Chinatown where my friend Veronica Zhai says the dumplings taste like “home.” I decided to wait.
There weren’t many cigarette butts in the street near Vanessa’s. I was surprised. The streets of the Lower East Side, full of trendy shops, bars and restaurants are usually full of discarded cigarettes. Maybe Vanessa’s clientele happen to be non-smokers? That’s hard to believe.
I found one butt on the nearby sidewalk. It was accompanied by what I think are three box cutting blades and two splotches of gum residue… the only human detritus more prevalent on the city streets than cigarette butts.
#17: Invisible-Exports Gallery at 89 Eldridge. I finally arrived at my destination – the reason for this long walk. Invisible-Exports Gallery was presenting Frida Smoked, “a group exhibition featuring the work of women artists and their cigarettes.” How perfect for me! Women and cigarettes – my two favorite subjects.
Unfortunately the gallery was closed. I knew it would be. I had spent so much time all afternoon long crawling on the ground, photographing cigarette butts, it was now past 6:30pm. Galleries rarely stay open past 6:00pm. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway. It was Monday, June 6th. Invisible-Exports is closed on Mondays!
This area of the Lower East Side has become a real-estate battleground for retail business. Chinese businesses and restaurants have been moving into this area for years as their population increased and the rents in the tourist areas rose with the gentrification of New York City. Most of the Chinese shops and restaurants I now frequent are above Canal, something that never happened 10 years ago. I often shop for vegetables and steamed buns east of Bowery. There’s an entire new Chinatown on that side of the avenue.
At the same time, this area has become the new art gallery district. Due to the ridiculous rents in Chelsea and the fear of another Hurricane Sandy, galleries are looking for another place to call home. With the building of the New Museum a few years ago and the recent opening of the International Center of Photography, this neighborhood is the obvious place. I most often visit galleries in Chelsea but since I’m frequently in Chinatown my visits to the Lower East Side galleries are increasing.
I’m stood in front of Invisible-Exports. I needed to get my shots. As a Chinese mother and daughter passed on the sidewalk I tried to capture a decent shot of them walking by the gallery. I failed, but here it is. Only later, while writing this essay, did I realize I had photographed the two women only a few minutes earlier, walking out of a nearby building. I like that shot of the women much better, and as it happens, I did photograph one butt at that earlier location. It was near the circular metal cover over one of the street’s water mains. It didn’t look like this access point had been opened in decades – the sidewalk not repaired for almost as long. I can’t imagine what the pipes underneath must look like? Another shot for my manhole sub-series though no man could fit here.
Standing in front of the gallery, I looked down on the sidewalk for my cigarette subjects. Now this was the dirty Lower East Side I’ve always loved. Butts were everywhere! I shot a bunch, my favorite a discarded Marlboro with a small tip of ash. The cigarette glows against the dark pavement of the street.
#18: Deluxe Food near Elizabeth and Mott Streets. I was getting hungry. I had a final stop before eating dinner. Deluxe Foods is one of my favorite grocery stores in Chinatown. It’s an unusual place. The store is a thin band, stretching from Elizabeth to Mott Street with entrances at both sides. They have the freshest meat and fish in the city.
I mostly go there for the steamed buns. I forget what they’re called but I know they are special. Besides the typical pork/preserved cabbage filling, enclosed in the bun are the special treats of shiitake mushroom, Chinese sausage and egg. The bun is perfectly cooked and delicious. They are big – at least 5″ in diameter and cost only $1.30. I always buy at least two and eat them as my breakfast over the next few days. Something about these buns makes me feel good. If you go, make sure to buy the bun with the small red dot on top!
As in Brighton Beach (Russians) and the Upper West Side (Latinos), people in Chinatown often don’t like seeing a camera pointed in their direction. I’ve always guessed it’s an illegal immigration thing. I get it. If there are no records you do not exist. Shooting in front of Deluxe Foods was no different. People coming out of the store either turned away or gave me a dirty look. I’m subtle. I’m not shoving my camera in their faces. Somehow the people always see me. They are aware. The woman coming out of Deluxe Food obviously did not appreciate my camera pointed in her direction. Now she’s on my blog!
In Chinatown it’s never a problem finding cigarette butts in the street. There were many on the sidewalk near Deluxe Food. I could spend hours here finding interesting brands and street textures. I decided to continue with the Marlboro theme, photographing a solitary butt nestled in the sidewalk seam.
#19: Tasty Dumpling at 42 Mulberry Street. I’m starving now. I’m dying to eat dumplings. Tasty Dumpling is only a few blocks away. I head down there ignoring the distractions of street vendors and interesting butts on the sidewalks. I get to Tasty Dumpling and manage a few shots of the storefront before heading into the small, old-fashioned cafe-like restaurant.
I almost always order #1 and #2 – five dumplings each of pork-and-cabbage and pork-and-chives. They’re kind of boiled, fried and sautéed all at the same time. They are Nirvana. Total cost = $2.50! Tasty Dumpling also has the best cabbage-ginger pickled kimchi I’ve ever eaten along with the best won-ton soup. The best anywhere!
I poured Sriracha sauce over my dumplings and chowed down. I was so happy. This made up for the closed gallery. Satiated, I bought some kimchi to-go and headed back into the street to search for cigarette remains.
In front of the restaurant I found a torn off cigarette box top. This was something new for the series. I also captured a few more interesting butts on the sidewalk. It’s good to get extra images. The photographs not used in this essay can always become part of my Smokers’ Detritus portfolio.
Publisher’s note: Part IV begins here. I’ve finally finished this essay. It’s the longest piece I’ve written since college!
#20: The A/C/E subway station at Canal and Sixth Avenue. It was approaching 8:00pm. The light was fading and after gorging on dumplings I was finally getting tired. There is always the question of whether I should take the #1 or the C train home. The #1 runs more frequently but there’s something I like about the C. Maybe it’s the wider train cars? Tonight I would go with feel over speed.
Entrances to the subway are cigarette butt graveyards. All those smokers need to toss their butts before entering the station. There were some nice butts among the grass and dirt surrounding a few nearby trees but I decided to stick with the sidewalk seam theme.
This time in the early evening is my favorite portrait light. As much as I wanted to capture the faces of the people milling around at the entrance to the station, the ad at the top of the stairs grabbed my attention. I don’t know who shot the ad but it matched the evening light.
#21: Central Park West and 81st Street subway station. It was 8:45pm when I got off the train at 81st Street. It was already dark on the street. The sky had that last glow of daylight. I haven’t shot many cigarette butts by streetlight but now I was “on assignment.” I had no choice.
Heading out of the station a couple was just ahead of me on the stairs. I saw the picture before it happened. I slowed to open up some space between us. I was ready. I got the shot. The photo reminds me of pictures I took when I first moved to New York City in 1976.
Walking up the stairs, I saw two butts on the steps near the top. I often see people smoking on this staircase leading down into the station, not caring how difficult they make it to pass. Now I have a record of their crimes!
Outside the station it was beautiful. The street lights, auto headlights, dimming sky and subway station glow all matched. I had to capture the shot. Unlike the 70s look of the earlier photo this one felt modern.
#22: 165 West 83rd Street – Home. A few blocks later I’m finally home. I’m ready to take the last photographs for my assignment. All I want to do was sit down on my couch and drink a cup of tea. I need to wash my knees. They are filthy from kneeling on the sidewalks and streets all day long.
A woman turns back to check on her dawdling friend and quickly I take the shot. I look down. I know my sidewalk is always full of butts. The question is finding one in enough light for a photograph.
It wasn’t happening. I find one where I can see well enough to focus. The images are dark. I’ll somehow manage to pull out the detail.
#23: Exhibition at the Invisible-Export Gallery. You might think this essay is finished but there is one more story. Three days later, on June 9th, Abby Wen Wu asked me if I wanted to join her at the New Museum that evening. On Thursdays, after 6:00pm the museum is pay-what-you-wish. I figured I could go early and see the Frida Smoked show at Invisible-Exports and meet Abby afterwards.
I got to Invisible-Exports and this time it is open. I had expected the work to be a little more “feminist”… paintings, drawings and sculptures showing a woman’s point of view. There was none of that. I wondered, “why evoke the spirit of Frida Kahlo if you weren’t going to show art embodying the strength of women?” Maybe the gallery, finding that need unnecessary, is what evokes the strength of women artists.
I spent some time wandering through the small gallery. The art work was mostly not in a style I appreciate. I’m not a big fan of most modern or conceptual art though over time I’ve learned to understand the process of some of the newer artists. My favorite piece was a grouping of cigarette butts by Ilse Getz called Cigarette Collage VII. It was dated 1965, much older than the other works. Maybe that’s why I liked it? Getz’s two pieces seemed more authentic than the work of the other artists. I loved how her work had obviously deteriorated over time.
I found Amanda Nedham’s cigarette sculptures entertaining but they looked more like items from the gift shop at MOMA or the Whitney than gallery pieces. The small pieces were cute. Like I said, I don’t like modern conceptual art. I have to admit, a couple of weeks later, and after spending some time looking at my photograph of her sculptures, they’re beginning to grow on me.
One piece in the exhibition struck me with it’s simplicity – a pale cigarette fixed on to the white gallery wall. A Scratch on the Wall. A Moment Embedded in, 2016 by Irini Miga. The description mentions the piece is made up of “Cigarette butt, marble dust, left overs of carbon dioxide, water vapor, oxygen and nitrogen.” Even the description of her materials is conceptual! If I photographed my own cigarettes in the studio instead of on the streets, I’d prefer my images looked like the Irini Miga’s sculpture, not like Irving Penn’s photographs of the same subject matter – and I do love Irving Penn.
The 1988 collage of color photographs by Anne Doran was what I had expected to see in the exhibition. Part of the collage featured a woman’s naked breast with a cigarette. Her piece was so 1980s! The work was called AD16 1. I don’t know the meaning of the collage or if the artist took her imagery from real advertisements? I do know it reminded me of the 80s. It’s the time when I believe the commercial prospects of art became more important than it’s creativity.
I photographed a few of the pieces and headed back into the street for my cigarette photographs. The selection was better now than three days ago. You can see several butts on the ground in my picture of the gallery. There were several Asian brands on the sidewalk and street. I don’t know why these butts still fascinate me? Maybe it’s the colors? Strange, because I typically photograph in black and white. I found several discarded cigarettes I liked, especially the smashed and worn butt on the heavily textured pavement.
I was early to meet Abby. Now was my chance to try the dumplings at Vanessa’s. My cigarette assignment was finally finished and I deserved a treat. I ordered the chive-and-pork dumplings so I could compare them to the ones I love at Tasty Dumpling. I also asked for an order of basil-and-chicken. It was crowded. The dumplings took a while to arrive. Tasty Dumpling is also crowded right after work hours. Their service is faster. The pork-and-chive dumplings were cold. That did not make me happy. The basil-and-chicken dumplings were good but they tasted like they were made for an American palate. I could cook something similar, better, in my own kitchen. Vanessa’s dumplings were a more expensive but not nearly as good as those at Tasty Dumpling. The price didn’t matter. Taste does. I will go back to Vanessa’s at some point for one more try. The sesame pancake sandwiches looked interesting.
In a way, the essay finally ends where it was supposed to begin. Abby and I met up at the New Museum, took a look at the exhibitions and headed down to Chinatown for a late dessert. After 9:00pm that’s not an easy task. Most Chinese cafes are closed by 9:00pm and few restaurants have any desserts besides almond or fortune cookies. I knew the newer XO restaurant had a dessert menu and that’s where we ended up. Besides dessert, I “made” Abby share an order of shrimp dumplings. I love XO’s shrimp dumplings!
A few weeks earlier, during a group dinner at this same restaurant, I realized Abby needed to be a muse. I studied her face during that entire dinner, deciding how I would capture her image. So far we done two shoots together, one for my Mirror series and a beautiful portrait for the Intimate Portrait project. I began to write about Abby after the Intimate shoot. As I mentioned many pages ago, her story was supposed to be this photo-essay… Cigarettes #10: Abby Wen Wu. I began to write but I felt I needed more of her before I could complete an essay. This Long Walk essay took her place.
Abby’s presence in my life has influenced this story. There is no doubt in my mind she will be the subject of future essays – memories not yet happened – interesting stories indeed.