Whoever Smelt It: Photographing Scent in New York City


If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then how much is a smell? Though we have yet to calculate an exact exchange rate, we do know that images have the power to elicit powerful, visceral sensory reactions. Real or imagined, smells can evoke deeply personal memories or universal experiences. From roasting meat to using a public bathroom, these aromas permeate across cultures to remind us of our best meals and worst road trips. Scent, emotion, and memory are jumbled together in narrative.

Researchers found that smellizing — imagining a smell — while looking at an image of food increased consumers’ desire to consume and purchase said product. And although we don’t expect the following images will inspire your spending or consumption habits, there is clearly a link between the visual and the olfactory that enriches the viewer experience.

We ask that you attempt to smellize as you view the images below and on our Instagram page in order to explore the delicious and disgusting city scents that litter our path.

FishOcean, ammonia, high tide – I know you like to think your fish don’t stink…

BooksMusty, moldy, grandma — Smells like elderly spirit

PineSolCrisp, fresh, forest — The Pine Sol of nature

CheeseMusty, sweet, funky — Who cut the cheese?

cutting_the_roastHeavy, savory, smoky — Man meats pig

Horse_pooBarnyard, sharp, tang — Straight from the horse’s…

BathroomBleach, urine, floral soap — A sensory haunted house

VomitExhaust, sour, bile — Returning to the scene of the crime

Author annotation:

When considering how to tell a visual story of scent (a possibly Quixotic task), we realized that we needed to look no further than Instagram, where a single image is intended to tell an entire story. This is a platform where the mundane images of daily life are meant to inspire awe, envy, and, if done right, a lifestyle — so we thought, why not add scent? Smells are an intimate part of our lives, as is our post on Instagram, where a single image sums up hours or weeks in a moment. The images that make up our profile are left up to interpretation, as are the odors here. And though you’re likely put off by our pigeon photo, we hope that the imagined fragrances of our day refreshed the very real aromas of yours.

Annie Epstein, Editorial

Top image shot by Christopher Talbot, Director of Photo, doodle bombed by Frances Matos. Images shot by Vicente Camacho, Director of Video and Christopher Talbot, Director of Photo.

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Whoever Smelt It: Photographing Scent in New York City