Watch: Irving Penn’s ‘Cigarettes #34’
In the early 1970s, Irving Penn began collecting cigarette butts he found discarded on the streets and bringing them back to his studio where he photographed them grouped together, in pairs and as singular objects. This print, numbered 34 in the series, depicts a pair of cigarette butts photographed in close-up against a plain background. On the cigarette on the right we can make out the name of the brand ‘Chesterfield’ while each end of the cigarette appears burnt. Penn’s photographs transform one of the most widely consumed and discarded products of consumer society from that of pure detritus into a symbolic representation of contemporary culture. By removing them from their usual context Penn disrupts the presumed narrative and creates minimalist compositions which leave the viewer with little else to focus on other than the burnt ends of the cigarettes.
Though Penn is best known for his fashion photography, he began taking still lifes in 1930s, focusing on various objects of consumer culture and flowers in close–up detail. The first cover image that he contributed to Vogue was one of his early still lifes of a handbag and a pair of gloves arranged with oranges and lemons. It was the first cover for the magazine which did not feature a model in the photograph. However, it was in his personal projects in which he focused on the still-life genre. The success that Penn achieved throughout his career was in large part due to the attention to detail that he gave all his subjects, from frozen vegetables, to Vogue models and wilting flowers.
The series was made using the platinum palladium process, allowing for a more nuanced tonal range in the print. This detailed range in tone allows the contrasts to accentuate the nature of the objects. Penn’s purpose was to emphasise the material characteristics of the objects. Photographed in such detail we can see the textured qualities of the charred remains of the tobacco and the subtleties in tone on the paper as it was burnt by the flame. Though Penn had printed work using the platinum process prior to this series, it is the first example of his conscious engagement with the technique as an aesthetic choice. The photograph is ironic in its reverential and highly aestheticized treatment of a branded commercial object, and represents a shift in Penn’s practice balancing his commercial and art photography. When John Szarkowski visited Penn’s studio in 1975 and saw the Cigarettes series he gave Penn his first exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York just a few weeks later.