I remember the kids who smoked outside the gates at school. They were the ones who lit up behind the bike shed, posturing as they felt the lingering eyes of the rest of us upon them. I have a clear memory of the moment when I caught the eye of one student who I’d long had a crush on just as they exhaled, the fleeting connection between us palpable through the smoke. There remains something elusively aspirational about the cigarette, the result of decades of advertising campaigns and glamourised habits on the silver screen. There is even an Instagram account dedicated solely to images of David Bowie smoking, an ineffable embodiment of that perfect notion of ‘cool’.
“The cigarette symbolises the difference between child and adult, its glowing ember as fleeting as adolescence itself”
Ed Templeton’s 1999 photobook Teenage Smokers encapsulates the inherent contradictions in the burning desire to light up. While the health risks have never been so indisputable, there remains a deliberate, lingering rebellion in the act of smoking, precisely because there is something so nonsensical about it. A cigarette conveys a “don’t-care” attitude that favours living in the moment over planning for the future. For the adolescent smokers photographed by Templeton, it represents a heady embodiment of their seemingly invincible youth coupled with a flagrant wish to appear older than their tender years.
It has long been the preoccupation of the young to seem older and more mature than they really are. As they teeter on the edge of adulthood, there is nothing more tantalising than the untold promises that those future years hold. Teenagers represent a section of society that is often overlooked, ignored or demonised by politicians (despite many being old enough to vote). Meanwhile, adverts frequently use imagery of teenagers as a tool to sell everything from soft drinks to headphones, demonstrating the antagonism ingrained in what the teenager represents within contemporary visual culture. At once feared and yet desirable, it is unsurprising that teenagers shapeshift on a daily basis as they seek out their place in the world.
This fluctuation between multiple selves is evident in Templeton’s Teenage Smokers. Not-quite-adults and yet not-quite-children, his young subjects flaunt and posture before the camera. Some perform an air of relaxed indifference as they drag deeply on their cigarettes, eyes turned casually away from the lens. Others look straight to it, fingers awkwardly clasped towards their mouths, or leaning back with a slight smile as they accept a light. There is insecurity and unguarded emotion on display here, as well as the quiet freedom that comes with having few responsibilities. Those pictured in these images are unburdened by the ordinary cares of bills to pay or jobs to attend, with only unrequited young love or school exams to trouble them.
“There remains a deliberate, lingering rebellion in the act of smoking, precisely because there is something so nonsensical about it”
A professional skateboarder himself in addition to his career as an artist, Templeton has long documented the subcultures that emerge from this world, immersing himself in the local scene of his native California. While photographing regulars at the skateboard park in Huntington Beach in 1994, he observed the popularity of smoking among the younger community. “I would be skating there when the kids finished school and they would collect there to hang out and smoke,” he recalls. “One day I brought a Polaroid camera to the park and started asking all of them for a portrait while smoking.” The resulting collection of images was first exhibited by film director and curator Aaron Rose, and then compiled into a limited-edition book that immediately sold out. A follow-up, Teenage Smokers 2, was published in 2015.
“When I was young, for a very short period I thought it might be cool to smoke,” Templeton reflects. “I ripped a piece of paper and pulled some grass, rolled it into the paper, lit it on fire and took a puff. It felt like inhaling shards of glass and I coughed uncontrollably doubled over in pain. My friend’s mother (a smoker herself) said to me, ‘Yeah, that’s how smoking feels.’ And that was enough for me. I was never going to smoke. So when I would see young people smoking I would always marvel at them. They are the ones who wanted to look cool so badly that they overcame the pain of starting smoking.”
Teenage Smokers captures that conflicting ebb and flow of desire. In these portraits the cigarette symbolises the longed-for, all-important difference between child and adult, its glowing ember as fleeting as adolescence itself.
All images courtesy of Ed Templeton