Smokers’ Detritus since COVID
I began the Smokers’ Detritus series several years ago as an Instagram project, using my phone as the camera, searching for a viewpoint different than my classic black and white portraits. I photographed while out running errands. It gave me something to do while wandering the streets of New York. My perspective of the city changed, walking along the curbs always looking down at the sidewalk, hoping to find that special piece of detritus in the gutter.
At first it was about composition and design — butts smashed into the cement or nestled among dead leaves. Then over time I began to notice the cigarettes’ brand. They changed with each neighborhood. The plaza in front of The Metropolitan Museum was littered with European butts. The gutters along the bars of the Upper West Side were filled with Marlboros. Tribeca seemed to prefer Newport and Camel. The streets of Chinatown featured the cheap Chinese and Korean brands, smoked by the underpaid restaurant workers.
One afternoon, while crawling in the middle of a Chinatown street I heard a voice, seemingly directed at me. I looked up to see a gaunt middle-aged Chinese man standing in front of the local barber shop, smoking with several of his friends.
“You’re photographing my cigarette?”
“Excuse me. What?”
“You’re photographing my cigarette.”
I stood up, at first not understanding what the man had said. As I watched, his friend tossed a finished cigarette into the street. I realized I had indeed photographed the man’s cigarette. He walked up to me. I showed him the photographs on my phone’s screen. He seemed impressed. Somehow I had turned his cigarette butt into a work of art.
After that interaction the detritus became more personal. I wondered about the person whose had smoked the cigarette, some crushing the remains while others flicking the still burning butt into the street. Who? Why?
The Pandemic had a profound effect on the Smokers’ Detritus series. The lockdown began in mid-March. Everything in New York City closed. It was impossible to work on my portrait projects. I earn my living as a dance photographer. Every job was canceled. There were no errands to run. I needed purpose to get out of the house. I had to find a way to create.
The grocery store shelves were bare in my Upper West Side neighborhood. I headed down to Chinatown to check what was available there. It was quiet, but unlike my neighborhood it still felt normal. The street vendors were out, their cubicles full of every type of produce. I began to notice a few discarded gloves in the street. At that point no one tossed a mask. They were too precious. The city had suspended street cleaning. The gutters were full of garbage. It disgusted most people. I saw this as a photographic bonanza.
Before I decided on a career as an artist my plan was to become an archeologist. Both my degrees are in science. I worked on digs in Central Illinois uncovering Indian burial grounds several thousand years old. Archeologists learn the most about ancient civilizations from their garbage pits – remains of meals along with discarded tools and possessions. It’s no different now. A neighborhood is defined by it’s garbage. Looking at a discarded butt sitting among other refuse, both human and from nature, I know where I am located in New York City — including the season of the year. I live in a place of mini-civilizations. I could write a PhD on this subject.
As the Pandemic progressed I took more frequent and longer walks, at first 5 miles, now 9 miles. I felt guilty being out of the studio for many hours at a time but then I realized, there was nothing else to do?
The patterns changed. The cigarettes no longer gathered in front of bars and restaurants but in front of brownstones and park benches. After the city suspended street cleaning I often found dozens of butts in front of a single brownstone. I wondered about the person who sat on those steps, smoking for hours, like me, with nothing else to do.
By mid-April masks and gloves filled the streets. This gave me the opportunity to expand my detritus series. It was exciting. At first I photographed everything. Over time I settled down, looking for interesting combinations and patterns. Each time I walked out the door I’d hope to find the perfect mask & butt photo. It hasn’t happened as much as I wanted. The combinations are out there; especially the gloves with butts. Unfortunately the light and compositions are rarely perfect.
I don’t need to photograph every piece of garbage I see, documenting the pandemic’s detritus. The goal of the Smokers’ Detritus series has always been to find the beauty in man’s garbage. It’s no different than my portraits, a photographic search for the beauty in mankind.
BIO: Paul bought his first camera at the age of 12, determined to document the lives of his friends and family. A stint as Photo Editor of his college yearbook, Northwestern’s Syllabus, convinced Paul to change his future career from archeologist to photographer. Paul followed his dream, moving to New York City in 1976.
Paul’s career as a fine art, portrait, dance, and documentary photographer has taken him around the world, photographing bodybuilders at the Hermitage Museum, ballerinas on The Orient Express, and pregnant women in Joshua Tree National Park. Paul’s photography has been published in numerous books, newspapers and magazines. His fine art photography has been exhibited in galleries in Europe and across the United States. Paul’s work resides in several museums collections.
Paul’s Coney Island photographs will be featured in the self-published book, Coney Island Scrapbook, available in early September, 2020.