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The Unsettling Symbology of Smoke in Photography: Between the Ephemeral and the Eternal

The vision of a spiral smoke rising into the air can suggest emotions, thoughts and associations, often contradictory. As an object of artistic fascination, smoke and smoking intertwine with our understanding of culture, aesthetics, and morality in complex and sometimes uncomfortable ways. But what makes these images so compelling? Is it more than simply aesthetics, or are there layers of meaning that cross cultural boundaries and social norms?

When discussing the iconography of smoke and tobacco in photography, an analogy that could be tempting, but should be carefully avoided, is to see them as a kind of window to the soul< /a>. What could be a simplistic and spiritualized view actually does a disservice to how multifaceted this symbolism can be. So, let's leave the clichés aside.

Think of American film noir, where the cigarette is often more than an accessory and also boasts allegorical relevance. It serves to characterize the hero or heroine as complex, often morally ambiguous figures and functions as a silent narrator of this complexity.

The act of smoking becomes a means by which the character finds a space for introspection, a solitary breath in an oppressive reality. We see here a gesture charged with intention, a symbolic break that offers relief in an often oppressive world.

In photography, smoke expresses the fleeting nature of the moment, a quality that we also find in the smoke exhaled from a cigarette, pipe or cigar. In diverse cultural spheres, this phenomenon finds interesting resonances in religious practices, where smoke is a vehicle for the transcendent. It could be the incense waved in a censer in Catholic ceremonies, the rising aromas in Buddhist temples, or the purifying smoke in smudging rituals in Afro-Brazilian traditions.

In all these contexts, smoke goes beyond its visual effect; it also expresses our continuous search for something that goes beyond immediate experience. Smoke captured in photographic images can thus reverberate with these diverse symbols, some deeply rooted in ancient rituals, calling on the viewer to ponder the multiple meanings and implications, both sacred and profane, that it can inspire.< /p>

When diving into these two very disparate examples, one realizes that smoke serves as a means to explore not only culture, but also our existential dilemmas. But it is essential that this discussion does not ignore the context contemporary, in which smoking is a practice widely discouraged due to its consequences on public health. Unlike periods in which smoking was synonymous with status or romanticism, today it brings with it a series of negative connotations.

This contrast between the romantic image and the brutal reality reminds us that smoking is a controversial issue, entangled in a complex web of personal and social ethics. In the world of art and photography, these images can serve to provoke, question, andchallenge our preconceived notions. However, beautyaesthetics or deep symbolism do not negate the tangible dangers that come with smoking. This paradox is what makes the representation of smoking in images so complex and intriguing.

So, what can we say about this duality that makes us fascinated by images that, on a more practical level, we know are harmful? Perhaps the key to unlocking this attraction lies in our own ambivalence about what is beautiful, what is moral, and how the two are often in conflict.

woman smoking in open door
Photo by Juan Pablo Puente Luna 🇲🇽

Images of smoke and smoke force us to confront the discomfort< /em> of this ambivalence, challenging us to re-examine our own conceptions of aesthetics and ethics. And in doing so, perhaps we can explore the complex terrains where what attracts us intersects, confronts, or even aligns with what we take for granted.

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Written by Angela Rosana, learn more about me here.< /span>

Credits to photographers and artists appear in the images, with links to their respective Instagram profiles.

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Published on Instagram in October 2023


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