When it comes to product photography, probably the item most photographed by me has been candles.  I have shot all different sizes and fragrances.  Some of my favorites are:
Candle Scent Baby's Butt
These fragrances actually smell as they are labeled.  The Dirt candle smells like rich soil from your garden.  Baby’s Butt exudes notes of baby powder talc and fresh cotton and the Grass Stain candle smells like mowed grass on a summer’s afternoon.
candle scent
Product photo of candle - grass stain

Truth in Advertising and Sense Memory

Commercial advertising product photography when done well, (combined with the manufacture’s packaging)  helps the consumer take that leap of faith to tap  “add to cart”.  Reviews, of course help confirm quality and results promised.

When it comes to the sense of smell, sense memory and personal associations contribute in large part  to embracing or rejecting certain smells.  As an example:  I used to work in a cemetery as a young man during the summers.  There were many fresh flowers I set up and discarded as part of my job.  Later in life, I worked as a bartender for various catering companies in New York, (more about New York City  later).  The parties had no shortage of fresh flowers on the bars and tables.  To this day, when the fragrance of fresh flowers hits me, I think of work.  It’s not a bad thing, simply a strong association – So, for me, with what is traditionally a beautiful aroma, to the majority of people, triggers recollections of work.  On the reverse side, if I grew up happy in Kaukauna, WI where a large paper mill emits the smell of rotten cabbage, I might identify with that smell fondly.

Aromatic Contradictions

When I think of living in New York City in the 1980’s and 90’s, I don’t remember fondly the smell of that urban environment.  I know a lot has changed since then, but what permeated the air, as I remember,  had seasons.

During the summer months, uncollected bags of garbage on the sidewalks was not uncommon.  Those had an oder.   The sidewalk subway grates fanned musty air up at pedestrians from the subway tunnels below. The subway stations on a 90 degree day had a olfactory life of their own, (which usually involved urine of some kind.)  In late summer the Ginkgo Biloba trees that lined the streets in my upper west side neighborhood shed their leaves.  The natural rotting that followed filled the air with the stench of vomit or rancid butter.

The malodorous atmosphere changed, depending on the neighborhood you were in and on what occasion you might be there.  Summer street festivals were a buffet of fried grease, fresh popcorn and window air conditioners  expelling stale, humid air out into strolling faces from street level apartments.  Korean green grocer’s flowers and pizza by the slice offset the sidewalk’s offensive list of rankness.

In Autumn my nose welcomed the change of odors.  If I was downtown, the Maxwell House coffee aroma wafted over from it’s huge Hoboken plant.   The roasted chestnuts from the street vendors in Times Square began selling.  Along with the other nut roasters, it was beginning to smell a lot like the holidays.  And, the Christmas tree sellers on the sidewalks, as I walked by satisfied, all so briefly, the north woods, cozy ambiance of nature in winter.

A Menagerie

The wonder of all of this is that, even after 25 years of vacating New York, I still can viscerally recall it’s scents.  Some are wonderful, and some are not, but this mixed bag of odors identifies or personally defines my experience of the city as experienced though my nose.   I am told, now with the recent legalization of marijuana in the state, there is the fog of cannabis gracing public spaces everywhere. ( I wonder if that might mask some of the unpleasant odors I remember?)

This brings me to my main point.  I have a candle, an expensive candle labeled New York City.

New York City candle

I think, based on this description of the candle’s essence, marketing has stripped away reality and presented a fictional ideal of maybe what one would expect to experience from reading the children’s book Eloise or imagining Central Park as a pristine lush fragrant garden of flowers and foliage.  (It is beautiful but remember to keep an eye on the walkway for uncollected pet waste).


Selling the Ideal

I understand that no one would purchase a candle that smelled like vomit or urine or human sweat.  To isolate, and I might add imagine, the best odors of New York – is a novel idea. 

When I burn this candle, I will have New York City in my brain because it says it on the box!  I might be able to fit my burning experience into a new frame of reference for the city.  After all, it’s fiction, not documentary right?

By the way…what does concrete smell like?

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