Up in Smoke

vapors 4, photograph

“But can you think of anyone who’s not hazy with smoke?”


I’ve been working on a series of photographs of smoke lately which I’ve titled Vapors. Shooting smoke is an interesting experience for several reasons. One is that (at least using the technique I’m employing) you can’t really see what you are going to get when you snap the shutter. It’s all in constant motion, of course, and shooting at 1/200th of a second with flash means you will capture some invisible slice of that movement and freeze it in unexpected ways. I’m starting a sub-series called Vaporettes which appear to be dancing figures – note the head with distinct facial features and the sinewy torso and leg beneath in the shot above.

This gets about as far away from previsualization as you can go, short of randomly taking shots of random things. Yet I’m carefully crafting the situation in which interesting things can happen. I just can’t control the outcome. Sort of like life, I suppose. Do all you can to create the possibility, then work hard to manifest the best you can, without being able to see into the future to know the outcome.

Normally when we photograph, we see in the viewfinder what will end up in the final shot. Though often we’re disappointed in the result – how can that be? We see what’s going to be there, after all. I think if we really were objective about what’s in that viewfinder instead of projecting our thoughts and emotions at the moment into it, we’d rarely be as surprised as we often are.

I find photographing smoke to be a fascinating exercise in preparation and letting go of anticipated results. Fortunately for me, I’ve ended up liking a lot of the results, but it’s always a total surprise.

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4 responses to “Up in Smoke

  1. A friend has done a series much like you are doing and he had the same experience and same terrific results. Your images a very striking. I like them very much.

    I like your thought about this experience being much like life… not sure what you’re going to get.

    Your thought about what is in the viewfinder has me thinking… Don’t we want to use our thoughts and emotions in our work? You seem to be suggesting that we not do that or am I misunderstanding? I suppose I can see that we might want to step back after we’ve taken the shot and evaluate it then for what it is sans the feelings etc… But to not use our emotions and feelings seems contrary to what should be happening. I do agree that when we are viewing the images and evaluating them down the road we need to evaluate without the emotions attached and for what they are. But when we are capturing ….. I want them there. Like I said, I might be misunderstanding..

    • John


      Let me clarify my comment about being more objective through the viewfinder. Our perceptions are constructive in the sense that what we see is heavily influenced by those thoughts, emotions, the general context in which we experience it.

      The camera is thoroughly unimpressed by all that and captures mercilessly what is really there without regard to all that other stuff that might be causing us to “see” something that isn’t there.

      Often as a photographer I find myself taking the shot under the influence of my personal context without giving much thought to whether what the camera captures will be able to communicate that to another viewer. I think that is why so many of our shots don’t have the impact we thought they might.

      I guess I’d say that it’s ideal to be as fully aware of the thoughts and emotions that motivate you to take the shot, but to then consider more objectively whether and how to best take the shot to express that.

      The instantaneous manner in which photography can capture an artistic moment is both a strength and a weakness in that it can seduce us into grabbing the shot impulsively rather than considering how to best render the scene.

      All that said, I do have mixed feelings about the type of shooting I’m doing in this series because there is little opportunity for what I’m describing except after the fact in the editing and processing. But I do enjoy it! A paradox…

  2. Another angle on these shots interests me…

    If you were photographing say a stream, the stream is always there. It goes up and down, plants grow this way and that. You may have a unique POV from time to time, but the subject is what the subject is.

    With smoke, it does not exist until YOU create it. And like with snowflakes in nature, your creation will never exist again. Each one is unique, but you are the creator.

    And then there is the fact that you cannot see your subject. You “work the scene” but what end up being captured is a fraction of a second of a created scene that can never be repeated.

    A very singular experience and image. Your results are very beautiful.

  3. what a fascinating and interesting subject matter– smoke-vapors– something so unpredictable and can never be repeated– like a snowflake– but you have made it look seductive and mysterious

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