Cigarettes quickly became part of the lore of 20th century art when a selection from the series was first presented by John Szarkowski at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1975, just weeks after he saw some of the prints in Irving Penn's studio. On the spot, Szarkowski offered Penn an exclusive exhibition.
Penn's approach to the still life evolved over decades; from the 1930s onwards, he arranged everyday objects to create assemblages, which transcended their origins and original purpose to become conceptual works of art.
In the case of Cigarettes however, Penn literally found his subjects on the street. By bringing them into his studio and carefully creating these minimalist compositions, he transformed one of the most widely consumed and discarded products of consumer society from that of pure detritus into a symbolic representation of contemporary culture. This transformative act resulted in one of the most elegant yet direct expressions of post-modern artistic practice.
By printing the Cigarettes in the platinum palladium process, Penn also elevated each image to the status of a rare object; many of his most important pictures were printed in platinum, which is the most difficult and demanding of all photographic techniques. The soft, broad tonal ranges and gentle contrasts accentuate the nature of the original objects, further emphasizing their material characteristics.