Photography and Smoke

Smoke 100

While there are a number of feature films in which photography or photographers play a part (Rear Window, The Year of Living Dangerously, The Eyes Of Laura Mars and Salvador, for example) those which explore the nature of the medium itself are rare.  Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966) considers photography as part of the fashion scene, but then sees photographer Thomas (David Hemmings) accidentally photographing a murder—photography becomes the inadvertent witness to events not even seen by the photographer.  Jocelyn’s Moore’s Proof (1991) sees Hugo Weaving playing a blind photographer, who uses a camera as his eyes, to make images which for him constitute ‘proof’ that the visible world is as he perceives it to be through his other senses.  In Wayne Wang’s film Smoke (1995) photography is a literal capture device, capable of incarcerating the subject as well as the photographer.

Auggie Wren (Harvey Keitel) owns the ‘Brooklyn Cigar Company’, a small business selling cigarettes and cigars at the corner of Third Street and Seventh Avenue, New York.  His friends, regulars who frequent his shop, know Wren as a shop-owner, but they do not know of his secret—he is a photographer.  How he came to own his camera is the basis of a story the he tells to a regular customer, Paul Benjamin (William Hurt).[1]

Benjamin is a writer, and arrives at the shop late one evening to find Wren locking up.  He hopes to purchase a box of his favourite Schimmelpenninck miniature cigars and Wren re-opens the shop for him.  After the transaction and some small-talk Benjamin notices a camera, a Canon 35mm SLR, amid the smoking products and paraphernalia on the counter.

BENJAMIN:  Looks like someone forgot a camera.
WREN:  Yeah, I did.
BENJAMIN:  It’s yours?
WREN:  It’s mine alright.  I’ve owned that little sucker for a long time.
BENJAMIN:  I didn’t know you took pictures.
WREN:  I guess you could call it a hobby.  It only takes five minutes a day to do it but I do it every day, rain or shine, sleet or snow.  Like the postman.
BENJAMIN:  So you’re not just some guy who pushes coins across the counter?
WREN:  Well, that’s what people see, but that ain’t necessarily what I am.

Cut to album of black and white photographs.  A page of 4—all showing the outside of the Brooklyn Cigar Company, the shop owned by WREN

BENJAMIN:  (leafing through the album) They’re all the same.
WREN:  That’s right.  More than four thousand pictures of the corner of Third Street and Seventh Avenue at eight o’clock in the morning, four thousand straight days in all kinds of weather.  That’s why I can never take a vacation.  I got to be in my spot every morning at the same time … every morning in the same spot at the same time.
BENJAMIN:  I’ve never seen anything like this.
WREN:  That’s my project.  What you’d call my life’s work.
BENJAMIN:  It’s amazing.  I’m not sure I get it though.  I mean … What was it that gave you the ideas to do this … project?
WREN:  I don’t know, it just came to me.  It’s my corner after all.  I mean, it’s just one little part of the world but things take place there, too, just like everywhere else.  It’s a record of my little spot.
BENJAMIN:  It’s kind of overwhelming.

BENJAMIN leafs through the album, flicking fast.

WREN:  You’ll never get it if you don’t slow down, my friend.
BENJAMIN:  What do you mean?
WREN:  Well. You’re going too fast.  You’re hardly even looking at the pictures.
BENJAMIN:  But … they’re all the same.
WREN:  They’re all the same, but each one is different from every other one.  You’ve got your bright mornings; your fog mornings; you’ve got your summer light and your autumn light; you’ve got your week days and your weekends; you’ve got your people in overcoats and galoshes and you’ve got your people in t-shirts and shorts.  Sometimes same people, sometimes different ones.  Sometimes different ones become the same, and the same ones disappear.  The earth revolves around the sun and every day the light from the sun hits the earth from a different angle.
BENJAMIN:  Slow down, huh?
WREN:  That’s what I recommend.  You know it: tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.  Time keeps its petty pace.

BENJAMIN leafs slowly, recognises a face: his wife, who was shot and killed in a bank hold-up a few years earlier.

BENJAMIN:  Oh, Jesus! Look!  It’s Ellen …
WREN:  Yeah, it’s her alright.  She’s in quite a few from that year.  Must’ve been on her way to work.
BENJAMIN:  It’s Ellen.  Look at her.  Look at my sweet darling.  (He breaks down and cries.)

End of scene.

This exchange tells us much about the nature of photography: its power to transform, to captivate, to illuminate, to remember, to imprison.

In Benjamin’s eyes—and Benjamin is a writer and therefore an artist, too, a published novelist—the act of photography raises Wren’s status from that of a shop keeper, a small businessman, into the realms of art.  Just owning the camera is enough: Benjamin arrives at his conclusion before seeing any of Wren’s photographs.  Ownership of the camera confers a status of the ‘other’, of a power which transforms Wren, making him instantly more interesting without requiring him to do anything else.

Once Benjamin looks at the photographs he is captivated, not only by the repetition but by Wren’s insistence that the apparent sameness is superficial; that there is a depth to the images which remains unseen and misunderstood if we do not linger over them, to engage with them and ‘get to know’ them.  Listening to Wren’s explanation of the nuanced differences we, the viewers, become captivated by the images, too.  But more importantly, we are gripped by the idea that interesting things can happen in our little corner of the world, as well.  All it needs is for us to look, and to see.

The place that Wren photographed is a local corner, important to him because it is where his business is.  Taking his photographs he becomes a part of the corner, and his subjects stop taking any notice of the photographer.  His invisibility is what lends a truth to the images; not a ‘scientific’ truth but a subjective truth of an acute observer engaged with the world that he knows.  By becoming invisible himself he is able to make the mundane visible.  One is reminded of Henri Cartier-Bresson, who painted his silver Leica black and who refused to allow his own photograph to be published because he wished to remain anonymous on the streets of Paris, to be able to take photographs unseen by those at whom he was looking.  And so it is, often, with photography—the photographer becomes invisible, an unseen stalker on city streets.

Unbeknown to Benjamin when he sits down to look at the photographs is that he has a personal interest in the images, in the likeness of his wife who is lost to him in reality but is still there, trapped in the black-and-white pictures the Wren has placed so carefully in albums.

But in an ironic twist, just as the camera captures the images of the people in the street—has captured Benjamin’s wife, now dead—Wren is also captured.  In the process of recording the people who pass by his lens he is ensnared: his habit has become an obsession.  He now must record the scene at 8.00 a.m. each day, must ‘…be in my spot every morning at the same time … every morning in the same spot at the same time.’  There is no reason for this other than one of his own making.  Now, however, he finds that he can now no even have a holiday because there would be no one to take the photograph.

Like the subjects of his photographs Wren is himself imprisoned by his obsession, and the longer he pursues it the harder it is for him to break free.

Smoke CompositeSome of Auggie Wren’s images from ‘Smoke’, 1995.  (Still Photographer K.C. Bailey.)

Text © Stuart Peel 2013

[1] The film is based on a short story, ‘Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story’, by American writer Paul Auster, and the character of Benjamin is based on Auster himself.  The original short story was published in the New York Times at Christmas 1990, and is related in the film by Harvey Keitel.  The complete short story can be downloaded from

Photographer’s Block

I went out the other day intent on taking photographs.  I had no agenda to pursue, no ‘event’ to cover, nothing in particular that I ‘wanted’ to photograph.  It was a weekday, so there was a bonus of not being ‘at work’ when most other people were.  I had my camera bag packed and batteries charged.

I drove to South Mole, a rocky headland constructed as a breakwater to protect the harbour in Fremantle, and one of my favourite places to take a few pictures.  Even if nothing interesting is happening in the harbour, there is always the sea, the sky, the horizon and the often changing weather.  But some days you realise, quite early on, that things are just not going to go the way you had hoped.  As I drove up to the entrance of the Mole, the steel and mesh gate that is always open was padlocked, and a sign attached.  The port authority apologised for any inconvenience, it said, but the Mole was to be closed for two weeks for repair work.

Damn and double damn.  I didn’t need to take any photos there, but I hadn’t made any contingency plans.  I turned the car around and headed back towards town.  I drove along the cappuccino strip, past all people sitting in the sun, drinking a coffee on their way to work, and I started to envy them.  They at least had something to do; some purpose.  My day was disappearing fast and I was starting to panic just a little.  I drove around the back streets of South Fremantle looking for inspiration.  Further south, the abandoned power station was bright in the morning sun, and I and drove along the access road.  It was once a graceful building, rectangular and low, with rows of small-paned windows stretching three stories from ground to roof.  From the inside these windows give the main hall the feeling of a post-apocalyptic Gothic cathedral, which is why the place is now popular with the graffiti artists.  I climbed out of the car, dragged myself up a dirt bank and stood next to the chain link and barbed wire fence, and looked at the junk and graffiti.  I have spent so much time there over the years I know it intimately, and couldn’t imagine anything else that I needed to photograph.  I turned the car around and headed further south to a coffee shop by the beach.  Usually quiet, on this morning—when everyone else was supposed to be at work–the carpark was half full and about a dozen pushbikes were bundled together by a tree.  Half-a dozen young mothers with one or two three and four years olds each crowded the outside tables.  Not even a coffee for me it seemed.

I drove back onto the main road, wandered past the vacant block where an old abattoir and meat packing factory used to be.  The acres that the factory covered had been sprayed with a green concoction designed to keep down the dust.  I’d photographed its destruction, but now there was nothing left.  I continued past market gardens, housing estates, small scale industry and factory units.  I drove on and only realised I was heading for home when I found myself turning into my own street.

What was the problem?  Why hadn’t I found anything to photograph?  I had the day to myself, the weather was perfect, but nothing seemed to work.  It occurred to me later, while I sipped coffee and stared at my back garden: the problem was habit.  I had stopped looking—really looking—at things.  I saw everything, to be sure, but I knew what it was and what it looked like before I really saw it.  It had been glanced, named categorised and filed without me actually looking at what was before me, today, now.

Most days when I head out to take photographs all is well.  Some days, however, nothing works.  It is on these days when the brain turns to auto-pilot and habit takes over.  But what usually happens on those days is that the habit isn’t noticed.  Everything goes along as normal.  If the gate on South Mole had been unlocked I would have walked out to the lighthouse, taken some photos of the container terminal, perhaps a ship coming into or leaving the port, some clouds on the horizon.  I would have gone home, uploaded the images to Lightroom, looked at them and thought, ‘Wasn’t much to photograph today’.  The habitual nature of what we do is blamed on other things—light, not much happening, too many people.  This probably happens more than we realise but it is usually overlooked unless another factor intervenes.  On this day it was a locked gate.

It wouldn’t be such a big deal if taking photographs was not so important.  I can’t explain why these images—digital or film—have such a hold on me and why I spend hours looking for them and looking at other similar images that other photographers have made.  I can’t explain why I get up before sunrise and stalk through empty streets with a camera, why I wander through vacant and sometimes dangerous places, around old factories and alleys strewn with the detritus of our capitalistic consumer society.  I have trouble articulating the pleasure that comes from making a record of the slow and inevitable decay of the structures, of the entropy of things returning to their original state.

But just because I can’t explain it does not make it less significant.  And so when the photographic opportunities don’t eventuate there is real and genuine sense of loss.  Every photograph missed is an opportunity that will never present itself again in quite the same way.

Text & Images © Stuart Peel 2012

Post-war restraint? Not likely!

A bright winter’s morning, and a fantastic opportunity to get some pictures of a deserted, local, suburban shopping centre. Not an abandoned shopping centre, but in Perth on a Sunday morning, with the exception of a bakery, all of the shops are closed, so they are certainly deserted. There is no intermediate stage in their weekly usage—the centre is either full, or it is empty. Sunday afternoon it is full; Sunday morning is empty. There are a few centres that host Sunday morning markets, but in most car parks all that you find is a broken down car or abandoned shopping trolleys.

Shopping centres are fascinatingly banal places. ‘Modern’ architecture that is really not that modern, that after only a few years will start to look depressing and dated. As paint fades and facades start to chip they begin to take on the appearance of last decades’ fashion. Which is, of course, precisely what they are, and exactly what I was intending to try and photograph.

But as Robbie Burns wrote, ‘The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/Gang aft agley’.

Pulling into the car park the first thing I noticed—the only thing I noticed—was a fire-engine-red 1959 Cadillac convertible, sitting smack in the middle of the parking area, all by itself. A classic of space-age fins-and-chrome, bullet tail lights and an acre of bonnet and boot, it was a perfectly restored monster. It is easy to forget how big cars used to be.

The camera came out I started taking a photo or two when a more restrained Pontiac pulled into the parking area.  A 1956 Laurentian, a model that I have a particular fondness for, because my partner owned one before we were married.

By the time I’d snapped at it from all angles, a pair of Studebakers had arrived.  Then a 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air, a Pontiac GTO, another two Cadillacs … Then cars started arriving faster than I could keep up with them.

In the next hour or so around 150 of them pulled into the car park, all American, most of them left-hand-drives and all of them immaculately restored.

This was my favourite on the day, the first one that I saw.


Cadillac, American Car, Stuart Peel Photographer

1959 Cadillac at Gateway Shopping Centre

More than any other cultural icon, these cars have come to epitomise an era.

Following the end of World War II, the USA was a hotbed of internal conflict.  The unsubstantiated fear of the spread of international Communism saw the instigation of ‘The House Committee on Un-American Activities’, and along with Senator Joseph McCarthy, the Chairman of the ‘Subcommittee on Investigations of the Government Operations Committee’, sought and discovered Communists everywhere.  Many notable Americans had their careers ruined by these paranoid zealots, or were hounded out of the country.

The Cold War with USSR was in full swing, and it was the atomic age.  There was atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons which in turn fueled an on-going doctrine of ‘M.A.D.’, or Mutually Assured Destruction.  It saw children being forced to ‘duck-and-cover’ in schools.  A conservative and restrictive moral code saw the reversal of many of the social advances that women had attained during the war.

Paradoxically, the 1950s was also a time of incredible optimism.  Industry, which had been cranked up to a fever pitch churning out aeroplanes, weapons, vehicles and supplies for the forces fighting in the Pacific and Europe, were now looking for other products to manufacture and the surplus industrial production was channeled into other areas such as household appliances and cars.  It saw the birth of rock and roll and youth culture.  Art was big and muscular with painters like Jackson Pollock pouring and dribbling on landscape-sized canvases.  The Beats were changing literature, rockets were going into space, and architecture and design was reflective of the atomic and space age with a style that came to be known as ‘Googie’.

And then there were the cars.  In automobiles, by the middle of the 1950s all traces of the restraint of the war years had disappeared.  The new vehicles looked like space ships, with rocket tail lights, streamlined bodies and cockpits worthy of an astronaut.  The cars came in versions that culminated in automatic and electric everything.  It is interesting to ponder that the arena of design, particularly of motor vehicles, was the antithesis of the social restraint being felt in the larger society.

Like flashy neon signs, bobby sox, Little Richard and ‘Leave It To Beaver’, these cars are now anachronisms, and now seem out of place in a world of un-leaded petrol, ‘Smart’ cars and hybrids.  But there is still something special about them, and their appeal is sufficiently strong for a small army of car fanatics to lovingly restore and care for them, and occasionally bring them out on a sunny winter Sunday so that the rest of us can look at them and dream.

I didn’t get any photographs of the shopping centre, but there’s always next week.

Text & Images © Stuart Peel 2012