Pictures for an Exhibition

by Mark Irwin


Case N° 140526


 by Mark Irwin 


     Back in March, David over at one of the most intellectually and aesthetically sophisticated pipe-smokers blogs going,, launched “The Most Creative Pipe Photo Contest, which I heard about through Neill Archer Roan’s A Passion for Pipes blog.  In addition to walking away with some nice pipe-prize money, the winners, he wrote, would have their photos displayed in an exhibition at this year’s Chicagoland Pipe Show. If you haven’t seen the winners yet, quit reading this and go over to his site. You’ll be agog with delight.


     I’ve been interested in photography and visual design since my cousin Richard offered to bring me a camera back from the PX on his base in Japan way back in the 1970s. It was a Konica T-3, then a pretty state-of-the-art piece of 35mm hardware. I’ve been a Darkroom Dabbler ever since, fascinated by the early history of photography and especially the way photography and dark room magic can transcend mere documentary representation to express ultimate concerns—to bring the viewer to a moment of awareness and immediacy.


     I’m not normally anybody’s idea of a competitor. I stunk at competitive sports in school, my only claim to fame being that I kept the bench warm in 6th grade, thereby allowing my team to win the city championship without worrying about cold rumps. I’ve also had enough hard knocks to understand that the only reason for me to create anything is to satisfy an inner desire to express an idea or feeling—album covers for my own homemixes, book jackets for self-made chapbooks, almost anything in fact guaranteed to serve no conceivable commercial end.


     Being a Third Place kind of guy (that’s 2nd Place Loser for you guys who like to compete), I still found this an irresistable opportunity. So I began submitting photos. David was interested enough to begin responding to some of my entries, asking about a particular image or saying he wanted to see more. This kind of coaching I can handle, and his encouragement only fueled the fire. I was delighted when he said some of my entries had made it to the final round, but never thought I’d do better than make Honorable Mention. So I was tickled when a certain AeroBilliard rolling out the hangar of the Radice workshop won 2nd Prize. What follows are some of my others entries, a few you’ll recognize from their original debut here at Neatpipes.


The Well Beloved, Another DIY Project


     I adore estate pipes, dirty estate pipes, estate pipes with thick carbon-cakes. If I’m buying one, I also look for signs of love beneath the grime: I don’t need a stem that’s full of dental marks or a cracked bowl—I’ve got enough problems myself in both of those categories. But a well-beloved estate, especially something like this one-off Peterson System, is irresistable to me. I didn’t expect this still life to rate in the contest, and it didn’t. 


     Age and hard use aren’t something most Westerners care to think about, and I can see where it might be repulsive or just too quiet for some guys. Pipe photographs on the internet are invariably clean, inevitably sterile, and hence without a story or a soul. The Rev. Arthur D. Yunker said in Toward A Theology of Smoking that such unsmoked pipes aren’t really pipes at all, just Pipes-Waiting-To-Be. Off course there’s nothing wrong with that—it’s the standard plot of every Hollywood romance ever made, which always ends just as the relationship finally gets going. But I’m more interested in what comes later: did the couple stay together? What were their good times like? What about the bad? 


     Of course I want good photographs of a new pipe I’m thinking about companioning. The  problem is when I expect the pipes in my rack to look like the new ones I see on the internet, because they don’t. They’re the reality of what I do as a pipe-smoker: they’ve got personalities, quirks, likes and dislikes as far as tobaccos are concerned, and some of them can be a little temperamental. Most of them have a little oxidation, some rim darkening, a few scratches. Some need a good overhaul. But unlike the new pipes that catch my eye, those in my rack have proven they can do the job. Like the one in this still life.


Irish Whisky


     I took this photo at the Peterson Sallynoggin factory last summer. There is something almost other-worldly about pipe stamps: they proclaim a particular here and now and this that gives a story to pipe they’re used on. On his blog, David said about this image, “Looking at this image allows you to step into the Peterson brand and experience its full history & the impact it has had on its following.” 


     When I was at the factory, Peterson CEO Tom Palmer had a pipe bowl on his desk with a pipe that had been laser stamped. The stamp (really an engraving) was beautiful—deep, indelible and precise. You would actually have to damage the bowl to buff that stamp away. And that’s the tragedy of it, and why I hope Peterson will never embrace the technology. Getting out your jeweler’s loop to deciper an almost-lost stamping is like standing in an old cemetary reading headstones or translating a poem from another language, like reading an old journal or letter so smudged or faint you can hardly make it out. It is not a digital experience. It is a relationship to the past, one that gives me compass for the present and the future.


Emily Collects Calumets (Cf. Poem #1482)



I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – Too?
Then there's a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise— you know!


How dreary — to be — Somebody!
How public — like a Frog
To tell one’s name — the livelong June —
To an admiring Bog!



     This was one of the first images I sent David. Emily Dickinson is too brilliant for me, far too smart and sexy, wise and wiley. Had I been her contemporary I would have been stark-raving mad in love with her, and one of the reasons is that she can ascend such heights—clear to Mercury’s orbit—and still be so completely at home in the dirt of her garden, so amazingly humble in the etymological sense of that word. Being nobody, as she writes in #288 above, is the only real way to be somebody. Both Zen Master and Desert Father would agree. 


     If you read her #1482 poem, you know she’s talking about flowers, not Native American pipes, but I couldn’t resist tucking the heavy freight of a sacred pipe in her hands. You’ve seen this photo before in the “Five Laws” series here at Neatpipes. For the exhibition entry, I thought I’d insert the photo into an album page. It didn’t make it to the finals, but I’m sure Emily wouldn’t mind.


The AeroBilliard Hangar, Radice Workshop, Cucciago, Italy


     This was the first in the triptych of “fauxtographs” I created for the launch of the Neatpipes’ AeroBilliard back in January of 2013, and my personal favorite of the three. I’m glad it was the one of all my submissions that made it to the final round and eventually win 2nd Prize.


     When I went to the Seattle Pipe Club get-together Saturday night at the Chicago show, the incredible pipe historian John Guss’s brother Matt said what he liked about the image was the people—the people running toward the hangar and gathered around the pipe. And that’s so right—thescale of the pipe, the sheer virtuousity of what artisan pipe-makers like the Radices can do, can and should leave us a little breathless, a little wonder-struck.


Mystagocig Moment (Comfort: L., "to Strengthen Morally or Spiritually")


     I’ve tried to take a few self-portraits over the years with my pipes, mostly because I regret not having photographs of pipe-smoking friends and family (many now deceased) with pipes in their mouths. Sometimes, as in this image, all you can do is try to articulate your failures. Like Samuel Beckett said, you try to “fail better” every day.


     The great thing about a true Chubby pipe—like the ones from Neatpipes/Radice and the ones Luciano used to make—is that they are so very comfortable. And I say this with the original Latin meaning in mind: they offer moral and spiritual stength. You don’t have to hold them gingerly between your lips or offer them any kind of service at all—they seem to exist to offer you service and show you the way. 


     I believe the “mystagogic moment” occurs and reoccurs to the pipeman when he finds himself, his pipe and his tobacco entering into a state of spiritual equilibrium and balance, a moment of total awareness.


Made in ireland


     David Blake starteed at Kapp & Peterson 51 years ago, and has been Peterson’s silversmith since Liam Larrigan retired.  His fingers, portrayed here, symbolize to me the past and present of the company, the sense of K&P as a factory, of the twenty-odd souls on the floor who are “the Kapps family,” as he cradles three of their most famous COM stamps of three eras, two from the Pre-Republic and one from the Republic Era. If you own vintage pipes from these eras, seeing the stamp that was used on it is a little (just a little) like seeing Moses bring down the tablets with the Ten Commandments. Something almost numinous, that the stamp that marked your pipe from the late 1930s or 1940s or 1950s still exists somewhere on the planet.


Holy Smoak 


     “Holy Smoak”—I’m about as old-school a pipeman as you’ll find. For me, there is not only a theology of pipe-smoking, but a mystagogia. As practiced by the Native Americans in my home state (Oklahoma), it’s a sacred act. As appropriated in my own cultural/religious matrix as Christian, it’s a whimsical, joyful expression of both  contemplation and meditation—not truly either act, but a kind of smoke-intoxicated on-the-steps-of-the-altar sacramental act. This photograph was in my mind almost as soon as I read about the contest but was the last one I created and was my final submission.


    It’s mostly about peace, I suppose. Peace is not as the absence of conflict (as some suppose), but the presence of a harmonious order—I like “still lifes” literally and metaphorically.


    I like the “useless” pop bottle crate repurposed into a pipe rack, replete with medals of St. Benedict (who knew about how to maintain peace in oneself), St. Bridget (Irish, of course, who knew about war, mystery and the imagination) and St. Therese (who knew how to be tough as nails). The Sacred Heart Chaplet reminds me that pipe-smoking begins even deeper than the emotions, in the basic goodness of being itself. Then of course there’s the pipes, sacramentals in themselves, vehicles connecting the smoker and the tobacco.


     Having said all that, let me add that the photograph might not say anything to anyone but myself or even be any good for anyone but me. Part of awareness (in Jesuit Anthony de Mello’s understanding) is learning to enjoy doing something for no conceivable end except that it gives you joy. Kind of like smoking a pipe. 

Radice | AeroBilliard |