Saturday, April 25, 2009

Disappearing Smokes

Tobacco and thought go together. At least, they once did. Solving a crime, without his pensive pipe, would have been impossible for Sherlock Holmes. How many French philosophy books would have remained unwritten without smoke-filled cafés ? Still, times change. Now it is sickess and smoking that go together. Gone are the role models with pipes in their mouths or nicotine stained fingers. Gone also, even here in France, are the smoke-filled cafés. Outlawed also are advertisements for tobacco products.

Sometimes, though, good intentions have unintended consequences. In their zeal to uphold the advertising law, or, more likely, in their fear of lawsuits, some individuals have pictorially altered history. In 1996, 20 years after his death, a stamp was issued to honor André Malraux, the author and former minister of culture. A famous photo was used. Those familiar with it noticed a particularity. Something was missing. When the photo was taken, Malraux had just about finished a cigarette. Its remaining centimetres, in the original, were still obviously clamped between his lips. Through the magic of photo alteration, the postage stamp Malraux morphed into a model tobacco-free individual.

Malraux’s contemporary, the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, consumed avidly things that were not great for his health : barbituates, pipe tobacco, alcohol of all sorts and, of course, cigarettes. Rarely were mouth or hand free of some instrument for smoking tobacco. Yet, in publicity photos for an exhibition devoted to him by the French National Library, a new Sartre appears, one whose lips and hands are tobacco-free. The malign product, à la the Malraux stamp, had been photoshopped out of existence. This time the result was somewhat clumsy. The erasure is glaring. Sartre’s right hand, positioned around a cigarette, now seems strangely contorted.

One way to avoid publicizing tobacco without deletions is simply to ban tobacco-including photos altogether. That is what happened to a publicity poster for a movie released last Wednesday, a biography of Coco Chanel. The film’s publicists released a picture of Audrey Tautou playing Chanel. She is luxuriating in bed, cigarette in a carefully posed hand. This was too much for the Paris subway authorities. The photo was simply banned. Others posters, tobacco-free to be sure, reluctantly supplied by the film’s promoters, now adorn the corridors of Paris’s public transportation system.
Of the various ways to alter visual history, perhaps the clumsiest involved the alteration of photos for a retrospective celebrating the films of Jacques Tati. Tati was a sort of 1950s Mr. Bean. He played an unflappable sort, someone whose customs and habits belonged to an earlier era. Sweet, innocent comedy resulted from this befuddlement at the new world. His most famous creation was a character named Mr. Hulot. Hulot is immediately recognizable because of his trademarks : trench coat, umbrella and pipe. Yes, horror of horrors, in 1958 Mr. Hulot smoked a pipe. Indeed, Mr. Hulot would just not be himself without the pipe.
What to do with the publicity photos for the 2009 retrospective? Go the Malraux and Sartre route and photoshop the pipe out of existence ? Find a photo of Mr. Hulot without a pipe, Audrey Tautou style ? Neither, it turns out. In what has to be the worst of all choices, the picture has been altered by adding something. The pipe’s stem remains what it alway was. In place of the bowl at the stem’s end there now stands a colorful pinwheel. Yes, a pinwheel. One has to wonder whether the designers of the revised image meant to make a mockery of the whole photo-alteration enterprise. Whether they did or not, that is the result.

The most famous "pipe that's not really a pipe" came from the paintbrushes of René Magritte. In the late 1920s he exhibited a canvas depicting a smoker’s pipe. Underneath are the words, “this is not a pipe.” Magritte wanted to prod reflection on the relation between art and reality. The recent “pinwheel-means-this-is-not-a-pipe” alteration could serve to prod a similar reflection, this time about tensions between public health and historical reality.

1 comment:

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