My grandpa was a smoking man. Marlboro Reds in a box. Cowboy Killers. He smoked them hard; each deep drag purposeful. The cigarettes kept him even. Pushed down his feelings and created a shield between him and what he didn’t know. A cigarette always dangled from his lips. I marveled at how long the ash would grow before he casually tapped it off. His overworked nicotine stained fingers and the smoke that curled up around his guarded blue eyes etched a fond patina into my heart.
The strong smoking man is a relic. A rugged form of masculinity from another era. We no longer look at smoking as we used to. Now we see smokers as weak, their habit as offensive, the protective armor it may provide a shameful and antiquated affectation. A more with-it man leans on healthier props.
I notice men smoking on the street. Most of them are marginalized in one form or another: homelessness, addiction, mental illness, or perhaps just set in their ways. I reach out to see if they’re willing to let me immortalize them in all their smokin’ glory. There’s rarely a man who says no. Each embodies his portrait with a bygone sense of swagger. After the short and satisfying interchange, the essence of each dude lingers like the traces of tobacco on a well-worn sweater.
‑ Cat Gwynn