Edward Weston (American, 1886-1958)

Pepper, 1930 (posthumously printed by Cole Weston)
Gelatin silver print on paper, 9 1/4 x 7 1/4 in.
Museum Purchase

After several days of trying to photograph a "glorious" new pepper, Edward Weston exclaimed, "I’m not satisfied yet!" Then he placed it in a tin funnel--"a bright idea, a perfect relief for the pepper and adding reflected light to important contours." After printing the image, he proclaimed it "a peak of achievement":

It is classic, completely satisfying, --a pepper . . . but more than a pepper: abstract, in that it is completely outside subject matter. It has no psychological attributes, no human emotions are aroused: this new pepper takes one beyond the world we know in the conscious mind. . . . into an inner reality, --the absolute,--with a clear understanding, a mystic revealment. . . . seeing “through one’s eyes, not with them”: the visionary. (1)

Although the photograph's value as proof of these exalted philosophical claims might be uncertain, there is no question about its value as a demonstration of Weston's photographic ability. Pepper is a classic photograph, one of the most famous images by one of the most famous of all photographers. Weston began as a pictorialist, making dreamy, soft-focus images printed on matte paper. He then adopted a more modern style, turning to sharp focus and glossy prints that would produce what he believed the camera did best: a “stark beauty ” based on the exact rendering of rhythm, form, and detail. (2) Often that meant creating a close-up view, for clarity and concentration. Weston insisted that he wanted to reveal "the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself." (3) If the idea of rendering tone and contour seems like a throwback to the language of drawing, it was nonetheless fundamental to his approach. In this case, the sheen of the pepper’s surface and the brilliant highlights are set off by the equally intense dark areas, making the form compelling and mysterious. The funnel--and Weston’s skill--made that possible. But he always argued that "art is a way of seeing, not a matter of technique." (4)

This is a pepper with character, and despite Weston’s assertion that the image is abstract, presenting a subject with no inherent significance, it has elicited all kinds of responses. For example, the critic Susan Sontag, alluding to this and other Weston photographs, thought his “notions of beauty ” had, with time, become “banal,” an outmoded high-modernist cliché. (5)

For all his talk of "mystic revealment" and his adherence to a purist approach to art, Weston also had a playful side, as is evident in what he wrote about the pepper’s fate: "It has been suggested that I am a cannibal to eat my models after a masterpiece. But I rather like the idea that they become a part of me, enrich my blood as well as my vision." (6)

--Robert Silberman

1. Edward Weston, The Daybooks of Edward Weston, ed. Nancy Newhall, 2 vols. (Millerton, N.Y.: Aperture, 1973), II: 179–81.
2. Daybooks, II: 147.
3. Daybooks, I: 55. Weston's emphasis.
4. Daybooks, II: 156.
5. Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977), 100.
6. Daybooks, II: 180.

Edward Weston (American, 1886-1958), 'Pepper,' 1930 (posthumously printed by Cole Weston). Gelatin silver print on paper, 9 1/4 by 7 1/4 inches. Ulrich Museum of Art, Wichita State University, Wichita, Kansas. Museum Purchase