I resolved while preparing for I&P Assessment to evaluate (or at least write about) one image during every Part in future courses, in addition to any course requirements, in order both to practice to process and increase my options for assessment material.
I always intended to look at an Edward Weston photograph for this first evaluation, largely because I recently bought a copy of Weston's The Flame of Recognition (1971), specifically for access to his quotes on The Thing Itself and I want to include consideration of that concept in this review.
Until recently, I expected to evaluate one of Weston's nudes, probably the unnerving Civilian Defense, 1942, fig. G4 in Exercise 1.5 but my researches on Weston's life and work, particularly an essay by his second wife Charis Wilson, led me to his vegetables series and especially Pepper No. 30.
The evaluating methodology that has been developing throughout the course is suited to rather more complex images than Pepper30 and is particularly slanted towards portraits, or at least human presence. For this exercise I will need to add some biographical detail and comment on Weston's own logistic, technical and aesthetic approaches.
Much of the information known about Weston comes from his letters and daybooks: the latter he reworked, edited and in some cases destroyed. What remains is partial and selective and, given that it was Weston himself who did the editing, is likely to give a more favourable view of the man than if they were complete.
Looking briefly at his early life and his subsequent relationships, Weston had an unhappy childhood, did not thrive educationally and his subsequent personal life was colourful and chaotic with a series of partners, lovers, muses and models (Anita Brennar, Flora Chandler, Imogen Cunningham, Christel Gang, Margrethe Mather, Tina Modotti, Sonya Noskowiak, Henrietta Shore, Bertha Wardell, Charis Wilson) most of whom played several of those roles (Hacking, 2012, pp.279-283).
Weston was given a Kodak Bulls-Eye camera by his father in around 1902 and this "motivated him" to save $11 for a second-hand 5x7in. plate camera (Hacking p.279). Hacking goes on to describe Weston's subsequent use of an 8x10in. view camera for contact printed "artistic" work and a 5x7in. Graflex to produce negatives he enlarged for commercial work.
His creative life is sometimes described episodically, with periods associated with particular subjects. Charis Wilson, his second wife, contributed an essay The Weston Eye to EW:100, Centennial Essays in Honour of Edward Weston (1986) published by The Friends of Photography (1986). She describes how,
During the years when Edward had been closely confined to a studio for fear of missing portrait sittings, he had devoted much of his creative energy to still-life photography. When he found a sufficiently challenging subject, he would make a series of variations, as he did with juguetes in Mexico, with shells in Glendale and with peppers in Carmel … Then one day would realize he had said all he had to say about that particular subject, and he would be impatient to move on to new material. But it wasn't always easy to make a clean break. Wilson, 1986 p.120
And Weston himself saw some of his career in the same way,,
My “faces and postures” period, my heroics of social significance, were done about 1923 … My industrial period was over by 1922. My facades, ( “Immobile surfaces”) were done in Mexico from 1925-27 Weston, 1971 p.62
Weston's desire to concentrate on particular artistic subjects was interrupted by financial, commercial and social pressures. These difficulties applied through his early working life as he moved around the US and Mexico with a series of partners and companions.
The pepper was photographed in 1930, when Weston was 44 and living in Carmel, California, his home for the next 28 years. In 1937, he was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship that allowed him two year of travelling the "West and Southwest United States" (Garrison, 2022) with his camera and Charis Wilson. Images from that period were used to illustrate an edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
Of this period, Andy Grundberg writes,
This late work, which consists in large measure of landscapes, also contains evidence of a political consciousness absent in Weston's earlier photography, which is made up primarily of portraits, nudes, and close-ups of natural forms. In the last ten years of his working life, Weston perceived the American landscape not as something grand, primordial, and innocent, but as inhabited, acculturated and, in many places, despoiled. Not only do many of his pictures from this era recall Walker Evans's photography of the 1930s, but they also point directly to the socially conscious but stylistically restrained "New Topographic" mode of landscape photography of the last ten years, by photographers such as Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke and Stephen Shore … Weston's vision had veered from its earlier high modernist trajectory. Grundberg, 1999, pp.25-6
Weston's' Pepper No. 30, 1930 is a straightforward black and white picture in portrait format showing a rather convoluted capsicum or bell pepper, closely cropped and slightly to the right of centre. The chosen, close background is (in monochrome) of similar tone to the pepper. The pepper is quite old, as indicated by the wrinkled blemish, bottom right.
Zhang (2017), quoting Marc Silber, suggests that the exposure for Pepper No. 30 was 4-6 hours at f/240, using aperture adjusters Weston made himself in order to achieve sufficient depth of field in close-up. Although Weston himself wrote in his Daybooks of exposures for such photographs measured in minutes (see below), Silber, in conversation with Kim Weston (Edward's grandson) believes that "Kim’s details about the photo are more authoritative".
The title, Pepper #30 suggests that Weston photographs peppers (or perhaps just this pepper) often. The prosaic title suggests a matter-of-fact approach to supporting text by the photographer (if we assume he provided the title).
It is, or seems, such a simple image that there is little subjective, connoted content to pick up on, perhaps just the photographer's choice of a rather old and twisted pepper and the close background. Further information is available on both those aspects:
Firstly, regarding the background, in The Flame of Recognition (1971), Nancy Newhall's extracts from Weston's daybooks and letters he writes, on the same page as Pepper No. 30 is shown,
August 3rd 
Sonya [Noskowiak] keeps tempting me with new peppers! Two more have been added to my collection. While experimenting with one of these, which was so small I used my 21 cm Zeiss to fill the 8 x 10 size, I tried putting it in a tin funnel for background. It was a bright idea, a perfect relief for the pepper and adding reflected light to important contours. I still had the pepper which caused me a week’s work. I had decided I could go no further with it, yet something kept me from taking it to the kitchen, the end of all good peppers. I placed it in the funnel, focused with the Zeiss, and, knowing just the viewpoint, recognized a perfect light, made an exposure of six minutes, with but a few moments preliminary work-the real preliminary was done in hours passed. I have a great negative – by far the best. Weston, 1971, p.34
It is clear, then, from the seam that emerges from the upper left side of the pepper - it is sitting in a metal funnel. And he has been working on that pepper for a week.
Wilson (ibid.) adds an interesting postscript in her essay,
In Carmel, friends who had learned to scan the grocer's bins with Weston-stimulated eyes persisted in bringing him radishes, peppers and squash long after his interest in these plant forms had reverted to the merely culinary. Wilson, 1986 p.120
In analysing his own approach to photography, Weston wrote more than once about The Thing Itself,
April 24, 1930, Carmel …
To see the Thing Itself is essential: the Quintessence revealed direct without the fog of impressionism … to photograph a rock, have it look like a rock, but be more than a rock. – Significant presentation – not interpretation. Weston, 1971 p.41
March 10th, 1924, Mexico City …
the camera should be used for a recording of life, for rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself, whether polished steel or palpitating flesh. Weston, 1971 p.12
The clearest and most obvious interpretation of this phrase is that Weston considered that photography's most important attribute is its "basic documentary faculty" (Badger, 2010, p.13). That it can be applied with equal deliberation and dispassion to polished steel or palpitating flesh, or a pepper is considered by some to be controversial.
McGrath (1987) writes at length about Weston's deeper motivations and concludes that his photographs "of nudes, shells, peppers and assorted vegetable forms … cannot but be viewed as highly sexual representations"†.
It is an obvious thought and one that probably occurs to many viewers confronted with the appropriate juxtapositions, perhaps the actuality is more prosaic than McGrath supposes - Weston approached all objects of his artistic photography in a similar way whether they were his lovers or an ingredient in a subsequent meal and so similarities of treatment are inevitable but not necessarily indicative of malformed interpersonal attitudes.
† Mcgrath also asserts, in response to Weston's appreciation of glossy printing paper, that the "gloss of the paper mimicked the glassy quality of the plate negative, but shine also connotes a moistness which is associated with sex" (p.267) and that to "take a photograph is to exercise an illusory control, a mastery which is characteristic of voyeurism. But the sexual connotations of the verb are also obvious: the slang for carnal knowledge. It implies a physical penetration of the other while the photograph is a penetration of the space of the other" (p.264).
To this writer, these conclusions are a gross exaggeration of Weston's feelings and attitudes.
LPE Part 1 Evaluation References
Alexander, J, Conroy, A, Hughes, A, & Lundy, G (2019) Landscape, Place and Environment [LPE]. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.
Badger, G. (2010) The pleasures of good photographs. New York: Aperture Foundation.
The Friends of Photography (1986) EW:100, Centennial Essays in Honour of Edward Weston. Carmel, CA.: The Friends of Photography.
Garrison, L. (2022) BIOGRAPHY [online]. edward-weston.com. Available from https://edward-weston.com/edward-weston/ [Accessed 19 January 2020].
Grundberg, A. (1999) Edward Weston's Late Landscapes, in Crisis of the Real, NY: Aperture, pp. 24-30.
Hacking, J (2012) Lives of the great photographers. London: Thames & Hudson.
McGrath, R. (1987) Re-reading Edward Weston - Feminism, Photography and Psychoanalysis, in Heron, L. & Williams, V. (ed.) Illuminations (1996) London: I.B Tauris Publishers, pp. 261-69.
Weston, E. (1971) The Flame of Recognition. New York: Aperture
Weston, E. (n.d.) Seeing photographically in Trachtenberg, A. (ed.) (1980) Classic essays on photography. New Haven, Conn.: Leete's Island Books. pp. 169-175.
Wilson, C. (1986) The Weston Eye in The Friends of Photography (1986) EW:100, Centennial Essays in Honour of Edward Weston. Carmel, CA.: The Friends of Photography. pp.117-123.
Zhang, M. (2017) This Famous Pepper Photo by Edward Weston Was a 4hr+ Exposure at f/240 [online]. petapixel.com. Available from https://petapixel.com/2017/08/15/famous-pepper-photo-edward-weston-4hr-exposure-f240/ [Accessed 19 January 2020].