The Butt, and the Photograph

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

Roe Ethridge, "Butts," 2010 Chromogenic print 3 parts: 51 3/8 x 34 7/8 inches each (130.5 x 88.6 cm) Ed. of 5. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.

Rarely do I smell cigarettes in public these days. If they smoke at all, people close to me tend to bring out lighters only on occasions involving heavy drinking.  This shift is a surprising testament to common sense.  Occasionally, it seems, we can do what’s best for us.

Of course, that common sense has yet to spread to all nooks and crannies. Twice last week, for instance, I was asked, “do you mind if I smoke?” I hardly ever mind. I’m young enough that the cultural mystique of smoking never overpowered the glare of the Surgeon General’s warnings, but cigarettes still smell like a social life to me. Growing up, I equated their scent with a world beyond the one I shared with my parents, also both non-smokers. My grandparents all smoked, as did an aunt, an uncle and a great aunt, who kept at it well past 90. Imprinted in my memory are the first strong women I admired, all with cigarettes in hand: Virginia Woolf, contemplative and cavalier with her long-stemmed cigarette holder, looked fragile otherwise, and Katharine Hepburn, smoking while dangling her legs over an armchair, was cool and in charge.

That heedless smoking hearkens back to a golden, mid-century moment (Mad Men, anyone?) has been said before.  And I’m not interested in that breed of nostalgia. What I am interested in is why cigarettes, whether in human hands or not, remain such a constant subject for contemporary photographers.

Paul Graham, from "New Europe," 1986-92.

Paul Graham, from "New Europe," 1986-92.

Photographer Roe Ethridge’s current exhibition, Le Luxe BHGG, at Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills includes a triptych of cigarette butts all jumbled together in a pile of ashes on stone slabs. Le Luxe features the artist’s characteristic pairings of like and unlike imagery—essayist Eileen Myles might call it “browser art”, a simple recording of “stuff a hand or an eye might alight on.” A tall, porcelain-skinned blond stands in a sunset-colored, one-piece swimsuit, and a battered concrete pourer fills a whole frame; Abercrombie and Fitch-style sexiness meets the sensuality of weathered industrialism. This show is more a record of seductive moods and styles than anything else.

Then there are the cigarette photos. At first, the butts look discarded, but Ethridge has arranged them specifically, placing the stone slabs on strangely delicate black grates. The photographs pay tribute to nostalgia and leisure but approach tribute-making flippantly enough to keep their cool.

Within the first few decades of the 20th century, cigarettes had established a constant, casual presence in photographs. In shots by Brassai or Lee Friedlander, you see them hanging loosely between someone’s fingers. Or, sometimes, they’d add flair, like when Noel Coward wore a suit, stood in the desert and regally wielded a cigarette for Loomis Dean’s iconic 1955 shot. Through the 1960s and ‘70s, cigarettes remained a vice present in photojournalism and fine art alike, shared by hippies, soldiers and grandfathers.

In the late 1970s and ‘80s, following the slew of public health campaigns and Nixon’s banning of cigarette ads on TV, cigarettes in photographs began to look more indulgent, more punk. Shirtless boys lit them in bed for Nan Goldin and, later, Wolfgang Tillmans. Finally, in the 1990s, we saw cigarettes sitting all by themselves, laid out in installations by artist Jack Pierson, or abandoned in a public restroom in a photograph by Paul Graham.

Roe Ethridge, "Apple and cigarettes," 2004/2006, Chromogenic prin,t 41 x 32-3/4 inches. Ed. of 5. Courtesy Gagosian.

These shifts in art weren’t a direct reaction to tobacco’s growing menace, of course. They had more to do with a growing aversion to presenting “a whole story.” Better to pick apart the image and zoom in on its elements than to act like a camera gives you privileged insight into the human condition. When I was in high school, I painted a portrait of my grandfather based on a photo. He sat in a pink-winged armchair, wearing plaid and holding a cigarette. He died only weeks after I finished it, of complications from emphysema, and I brought the painting when we drove cross-country to his funeral. No one wanted it around; the cigarette jumped out at my grandmother, aunts and uncles right away, though I had simply painted him that way because that’s how he was. Omitting the cigarette seemed dishonest.

Images like those by Roe Ethridge, that let burnt butts stand alone, don’t feel honest or dishonest. Symbols of cultural indulgence, they’ve abstracted themselves from imminent consequences and turned the trappings of human behavior into pure style.  This makes them more disarming and unnerving than any photo of Katharine Hepburn or Noel Coward blowing smoke rings could ever be.