• 09.04.14

Toxic Beauty: “Smoke” Turns Cigarette Plumes Into Stunning Art

An artist burned 600 cigarettes in search of beauty hiding in a smoke plume.

Sometimes the most dangerous things make the most beautiful art. Even fervent nonsmokers are likely to find Smoke, a photographic series by German artist Thomas Herbrich, captivating. “I’ve always been fascinated by smoke,” Herbrich says. “I was always surprised by how quickly smoke moves. It’s easier to photograph a racing car.” To capture just 20 great shots, Herbrich took 100,000 photographs, literally burning through a total of 600 cigarettes.


Herbrich affixed each burning cigarette to a tripod against a black background. Then he shot close-ups as his brother held an ultra fast flash. The speed at which smoke rises posed Herbrich’s main difficulty. It only took a few milliseconds for him to see a shape that he wanted to capture, but by the time his brain commanded his thumb to shoot, the image was often gone. Also, since the smoke turned the studio air “gray,” he constantly had to stop shooting in order to ventilate. “And then we had to wait until the air was totally “quiet”–which meant not moving–because that disturbed the smoke flow,” he says. The result are whirls and whorls that hint at ghostly faces, seashells, and shooting stars. “What I like is an elegant figure–a pure picture of a simple turbulence,” Herbrich says. He has certainly achieved this, though his lungs can’t be too happy about it.

About the author

Jennifer Miller is the author of The Year of the Gadfly (Harcourt, 2012) and Inheriting The Holy Land (Ballantine, 2005). She's a regular contributor to Co.Create.