The Case of Missing Cigarettes

As America’s anger thermostats overheats on Mark Twain censorship, Iconic Photos looks back at a visual issue that regularly graces our semi-annual, revisionist political correctness hissy fits: cigarette censorship in photos.

The French, for all their enthusiastic fume-making, seems to be the worse offenders. Not even presidents or philosophes escape the firm hand of their cigarette censors, whose efforts are often sophomoric and inexplicable: Jacques Tati’s much-loved character, Monsieur Hulot, someone so iconic that even his silhouette was instantly recognizable, was depicted as gnawing on a papier-mache windmill instead (how did they come up with this idea?!). This actually reminds me of a scene in Thank You For Smoking where an American senator attempts to digitally remove cigarettes from classic films. The scene was not in the original novel, but its author Christopher Buckley would have agreed; Buckley once called a similar practice, “tampering with cultural DNA”.

Buckley was referring to a 33-cent stamp commemorating Jackson Pollock. In 1999, Pollock becomes the second American painter to be thus commemorated (first was Norman Rockwell). The U.S. Postal Service hired an artist, one Howard Koslow, to copy the iconic Jackson Pollock image by Martha Holmes. Holmes took the photo at Pollock’s studio in East Hampton, N.Y., for a LIFE magazine cover story in 1949. The photo, of course, showed the denim-clad artist, a chain smoker, pouring paint onto canvas, with a cigarette hanging languidly from his mouth. Koslow was explicitly ordered to leave out the cigarette, and despite much hoo-hah, the stamps went to press without it.

But this is not the first time a cigarette has been excised by the U.S. Postal Service. A more egregious example was the 1994 stamp commemorating Robert Johnson; the original photo showed the blues guitarist with his signature cigarette, which was notably absent from the stamp. This is more egregious because there were only two verified photographs of Robert Johnson, and the portrait on the stamp was the defining image of the man. Altering it was like, I don’t know, taking away Churchill’s cigar. But wait, they have also done that too:

Yousef Karsh literally took it away to capture Churchill’s combative nature. If he were still alive Churchill would probably have been angrier with public censorship of his cigar, committed by the London museum, The Winston Churchill’s Britain at War Experience. Churchill makes a “V” shaped symbol with his fingers, with his signature stogie in the corner of his mouth, in the original photo, but not anymore in the images that greet museum visitors. (Come on, how many museum-goers actually say, “OMG! Winston was soooo cooool with the cigar! Let’s go and buy some!)

Churchill would have hated it, but his German nemesis might be enjoying a posthumous chuckle. Adolf Hitler was an anti-smoking zealot; he believed that smoking was “decadent” and equal to “racial degeneracy” and that it was wrong for the master race to smoke. Feeling it was bad for Germans to see statesmen and role models with cigarettes, he ordered many top Nazi officials to stop smoking; this directive even extended to foreign leaders. Hitler had a cigarette removed from the photos of Stalin that Nazi Germany published when Stalin met with the Nazi envoy, Joachim von Ribbentrop.

It is tempting to play “You Are Hitler” card here, but other unfavorable comparisons can be found too; sociologist Todd Gitlin put it better than I ever can: “The communists used to airbrush inconvenient persons from photographs. Americans are airbrushing signs of inconvenient sins.” However, it is not just Americans; everyone seems to be doing it these days. Soon, we will be learning sanitized versions of history, where FDR, Sigmund Freud or Humphrey Bogart never smoked, reading books where Sherlock Holmes didn’t rely on cocaine and tobacco, and watching movies where protagonists are allowed to blow others’ heads off but not allowed to light up.

Often, the argument is about the children, for they are impressionable. Removing the cigarette from the photo of Clement Hurd which was on the dust jacket of the book he illustrated, “Goodnight Moon,” was such a case. In this case, the concerns were legitimate as “Goodnight Moon” was a classic which has lulled children to sleep for nearly 60 years but I am willing to bet 95% of the readers — both parents and children alike — would never have noticed that tiny little cigarette. Sometimes it is to be wondered whether the publishers deliberately try to stir up controversy for they could easily have skirted around the entire issue by using a different picture of Hurd where he was not smoking.


In 2005, Heinemann, a publisher likewise took out the cigar from the mouth of Isambard Kingdom Brunel from the cover of Leonie Bennett’s biography of the Victorian engineer. Heinemann responded to the resulting controversy by saying teachers and libraries will not buy books for children if the cover had a picture of someone smoking.

Yet “think of the children”, or for more educated among us, “Ad usum Delphini” is often a cravenly argument to further political agenda. On censoring a cigarette out of a stamp of the chain smoker Bette Davis, Roger Ebert quipped, “We are all familiar, I am sure, with the countless children and teenagers who have been lured into the clutches of tobacco by stamp collecting.” And don’t think it was all harmless; revisionism is only hilarious up to a certain level: in the far-away and simpler time called 1959, the American Gas Association managed to have all references to gas ovens and the gassing of Jews removed from the broadcast it sponsored, which happened to be the film Judgment at Nuremberg.

But I believe when we see a picture of someone famous — Churchill, Pollock or Freud — we admire them for their abilities and genius, not for their smoking. Whether a cigarette, cigar or any other fumigant is present or not, we see beyond them to witness in those photos men of talent; our focus is not on the cigarette, unless specific attention is called for by its inexplicable absence. Cigarette censorship opens a debate where such a debate was not necessary, where such a debate could only detract from the images and where such a debate would never have existed without the censorship itself.

The Birth of a Baby

"Indecent!": The Offending Slides

By modern standards, the controversy over the above pictorial seems almost incomprehensible. Yet, when Life magazine decided to publish it on April 11st 1938, the magazine’s editors knew that it would be one of the biggest controversies of Life’s early years.

The pictorial was titled “The Birth of a Baby” and included pictures from a film by the same title produced to reduce the maternal death rate. Both the 72-minute educational film and 35-paneled pictorial tell the fictional story of a married woman who becomes pregnant and who learns, along with the reader, about the major stages of pregnancy and birth. The movie had been banned in several U.S. cities for its ‘indecency’ , but Life decided to go ahead with their pictorial. Predictably enough, its appearance in a widely published news magazine for all audiences caused an immediate uproar in newspapers from Paris to Seattle, although Life cleared the stories with officials and warned its readers in advance.

Although a Gallup poll showed 76% of people were against a ban, thirty three U.S. cities banned the magazine, along with Canada and the state of Pennsylvania. Roy Larsen, LIFE’s publisher (and later chairman of Time Inc.’s executive committee) and six newsdealers were arrested. Lawsuits followed but every indecency charge brought before court was thrown out, except in Boston, leading to one headline: “Storks still bring Boston babies”. In this era, where the phrase “Banned in Boston” entered lexicons, the debate was the most intense in the-then more traditional bastions of WASP establishment: New England. Many important figures of the age weighed in; that arbitrator of good taste, the New York police department, mused that the pictorial “would be detrimental to the morals of youth.” In the White House, Mrs. Roosevelt was more ponderous: “I never think that honest things are bad.” The New Yorker published a parody, and many questioned the decision to ban these pictures, which contained no nudity nor depictions of sexual activity, while allowing other prurient magazines to be sold.

Always the one for bon mot, Life magazine described the controversy as pro-Life and anti-Life. Eventually, it proved to be a blessing in disguise for then-fledgling magazine. Even before Conde Nast mastered the art of $1-magazine, Life was marketed as a cheap magazine for all. Yes, its sales numbered around a million, but Life was sold at 10 cents per issue, which didn’t fully cover the expense and the magazine lost money from the beginning;. The controversy which followed the decision to print the film turned out to be a huge publicity boon for the magazine.

In the subsequent trial, the famed censorship lawyer Morris Ernst successfully defended the magazine. The landmark decision that resulted was to help to destigmatize public representations of pregnancy and birth. In 1965, Life published Lennart Nilsson’s photos of a fetus without much criticism and opposition. Looking back with more than seventy-years of hindsight, the entire episode seems quaint but it is oddly current too: in the recent years, the debate — decidedly quieter than the one above, but a debate nonetheless — is on whether Facebook should allow breast-feeding pictures online. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

What They Aren’t Seeing in Venezuela

On August 13th 2010, El Nacional newspaper in Venezuela published a photograph of piled corpses at a morgue in Caracas on its frontpage. The New York Times called the photo, “unquestionably gory and unusually anarchic”. Three days later the photo was reprinted by another newspaper, Tal Cual. The Venezuela government denounced the publication as part of campaign against President Hugo Chavez’s Socialist Party ahead of September 26 legislative elections, and the courts ordered all newspapers not to print violent images ‘to protect children’. On August 18th, El Nacional responded by issuing a front page without photos, but with the word “Censored.”

No matter how harsh the censorship is, it is still undeniable that Caracas remains one of the most violent cities in the world. There,  two people are murdered every hour — a homicide rate that has tripled since Hugo Chávez came to power in 1998 — and 90 percent of them go unsolved by a system that always manages to find time for cases against Hugo Chavez’s critics. Venezuela as a country does not fare better: if you were a civilian living in Venezuela in 2009, you are nearly four times more likely to get murdered than if you are a civilian living in Iraq! There are 15 civilian deaths  in Iraq and 57 in Venezuela per 100,000 residents. (This data is of course a rough estimate; Chavez government stopped publishing murder stats in 2003.) Although Ciudad Juárez, the center of Mexico’s drug wars, has higher murder rates than Caracas, drug wars have claimed fewer lives in 2009. There was 12 homicides per 100,000 people in Mexico, and 35  homicides per 100,000 people in Colombia.

The government has maintained that high poverty rates in the 1980s and 90s are to blame for today’s criminals, who were street children back them. Freakconomics guys will probably support this hypothesis, but the legacy of Chavez’s Venezuela, with its intense censorship and nationalizations, its ban on investments abroad, its failure to close the wealth gap, its recession-racked and shrinking economy, weak currency, devaluation and an inflation rate that is among the highest in the world will not probably be any better.

Pictures We Would Like To Publish

A newspaper that tells only part of the truth is a million times preferable to one that tells the truth to harm its country, once wrote The Sun. The Picture Post would have disagreed. “Responsibly Awkward” had been the motto of the Post, Britain’s answer to Life magazine, throughout the Second World War. With the nation engulfed in the greatest conflagration it had ever seen, humour was in low supply but the Post steadfastly provided it with pictures of dozing soldiers, sleeping people in underground shelters, and amusing street graffitti. When the Germans were preparing to invade Britain in the darkest days of the war, the paper calmly produced an 8-page feature titled, “How to Invade Britain”, an account of Napoleon’s grandiose but scuttled plans.

Paper-restrictions reduced it to mere 28 pages (from 104 pages before the war), but its patriotism was never in doubt–the paper set up a training school for the Home Guard while its manufacturing units were alloted to create cheap mortar. The issue Picture Post was confronted again and again was that of censorship. This absurdity was exposed in one issue by running multiple images of black-out photos (like above). Below these “Pictures We Would Like To Publish,” captions read:

“Some of the Leaflets our Airmen Dropped on Germany: Our country has at least done something in propaganda. Our planes have dropped leaflets over Germany. But the leaflets are a dead secret. Only Germans may read them. Britons may not. We asked to be allowed to show them to you. Permission refused.”

“British Airmen Shoot Down German Planes: A German raider crashes into a hillside — only one of dozens of pictures we should like to publish. We cannot. we can see the need of a reasonable censorship. We can’t see the need of a black-out. Can you?”

“British Troops Are in Comfort in the Front Line: So well-built are the lines which British troops have occupied in France that even in recent floods they are bone-dry. You see troops enjoying lunch — or would if we are allowed to send a cameraman. Repeated requests to War Office produce nothing but courteous acknowledgments.”

Only picture printed on that page was this one which the original captions scathingly read:

“Our Thanks are due to them for the pictures on these pages: the picture censorship department of the Ministry of Information. Lord Raglan (centre) and two colleagues in the department of the Ministry of Information, which decides which pictures the press may have and which it may not. WIthout their cooperation and far-seeing initiative, we could never have presented these exciting pictures of Britain at war.

The public and authorities were able to laugh these censorships off with typical British “Mustn’t Grumble”. The Post‘s publication peaked at 2 million copies a week in 1943, but it eventually overstepped itself. The government cancelled its subsidies the Post after it questioned the quality of some military equipment in the Middle East. Its last crusade was to release the photos of the destruction of the Farringdon Market by one of the last German V2 raids (March 8 1945), which didn’t happen until 1948!