Cigarette No. 34, New York, 1972. Platinium/palladium print. Edition of 18. © The Irving Penn Foundation.
Irving Penn was probably one of the most sought-after photographers of his time. Especially recognised within the fashion sphere, notably because of his longtime collaboration with Vogue, the artist also worked throughout his career on still-life images. One day, Penn asks an assistant to collect cigarette butts on the street. This will lead to the creation of the ‘Cigarettes’ series. A selection was first shown in New York at the MoMA in 1975; all 26 images are currently exhibited for the first time at the Hamiltons Gallery.
Intrigued by the photos’ subject, which is detritus but also an object reminiscent of a more glamourous past, we went to the exhibition. The size of the pictures surprises at first sight: the butts are considerably enlarged, and therefore convey something almost aggressive. It surely is the evidence of their turbulent lives: they’ve been burnt, stubbed out, thrown away, soaked in the gutter… Then, we couldn’t help but be amazed by the images’ precision and meticulousness. All the textures, rough or soft, are perfectly rendered. As if we had a magnifying glass, the detailed photos allow us to see every tiny tear, and admire the cigarette paper’s drapes and names’ typography. Most of these minimalist and sharp pictures were printed in platinum, which is, according to the gallery, the “most demanding and difficult of all photographic techniques”.
Did Irving Penn intend to elevate the remains of a mass market product to a post-modern symbol of contemporary culture? Did he want to denounce the tobacco industry by provoking among the audience both attraction and repulsion? As Francis Hodgson underlines in the Financial Times’ article dedicated to the exhibition: “Penn was interested in style first and always, and it may be excessive to read too much in to these pictures”. Let’s just say then that the combination of talent, technique and imagination is sufficient to turn an ordinary subject into a truly beautiful thing in its own way.
‘Irving Penn, Cigarettes’, Hamiltons Gallery, London, until August 17.
Read the Financial Times’ article here.