An Evaluation of Edward Weston's "Pepper #30" and Its Influence on My Photography


To find a single historical1 photograph which has influenced my life is a difficult quest. Growing up with photography, many images had influence on my life. One of my earliest memories is of National Geographic magazine and its dazzling pictures of the world. Surely the magazine as a whole influenced my interest in photography. I found it impossible, however, to identify a single photograph from the magazine, which by itself influenced my life. I spent some time reviewing historical images to identify such an image. Again, no image stood out, so I started to review the work of many photographers I admired, Dorthea Lange, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Walker Evans, among others. During this search, a single image stood out, Edward Weston's Pepper #30, 1930.


Edward Weston was born in Highland Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago in 1886. He was given his first camera in 1902 by his father. His early career focused on portraiture in the pictorial aesthetic. In 1915, Weston saw an exhibition of modern paintings that stressed clean lines and sharpness2. By 1920, Weston was making photographs which were obviously influenced by modern paintings3. A visit to New York in 1922 and a meeting with Alfred Stieglitz confirmed his change in direction from the soft focus of the pictorial ethic to one of greater and greater sharpness. Edward Weston moved to Mexico in 1923. In 1925, Weston took on a challenge: Turn a common object, a toilet, into a sculptural form. Later that year he shot a series of nudes which turned the human body into sculptural elements. Weston returned to California in 1926. He continued photographing nudes and began photographing still lifes of shells. He added to his collection of close ups, shots of various vegetables, including several images of the humble bell pepper which were shot with a five dollar lens at f/256. Weston is quoted that the peppers are " sculpture, carved obsidian"4. and again " a 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."5

The Photograph

This image, Pepper #30, was shot in 1930, along with several other pepper images. It measures 23.8 x 19.0 centimeters and is a gelatin silver print, although the source of the image for this review is " Aperture Masters of Photography, Number Seven"6. The image consists of a single, sensuously shaped green pepper which fills approximately 90 percent of the image area. The pepper is set against a background which is mostly black. The background in the lower right and left corners lightens to a medium gray with faint concentric arcs radiating from the pepper, paralleling the edge of the darkness in the background. The main light source on the pepper is directed from the top-right of the image, highlighting the upper lobes of the pepper. The pepper is taller than it is wide, with blemishes, to the point of decay, at the base of the pepper on the right. The right side of the pepper is concave, almost folding over, with its back edge disappearing into the background. The upper lobes of the pepper fold to the front of the image, obscuring the pepper's stem. The image is sharp and realistic, with every detail of the pepper in focus, yet this image is about more than the bell pepper. This image is about form and about life. The lighting delineates the form of the pepper, its curves, its wrinkles. Its sensuous undulating form is reminiscent of the human form with its curves and folds. Yet this is an object which stands alone. Weston states in speaking of this pepper, "It has no psychological attributes, no human emotions are aroused". But what is human emotion? Indeed, the pepper is an inanimate object devoid of emotion, yet in its form it defines human life and emotion. Life abounds in its sensuous folds, with the certain knowledge of death in the decay that is evident at its base.

This image is a remarkably strong image. At once you see a pepper, a deceptively simple image. Then the image's form and composition become apparent. Further evaluation leads you deeper into the folds of the pepper, visualizing the life and death that is inherent in the pepper and in human life as well.


Since photography is such a large part of my life, it seemed appropriate to choose a photograph which influenced the direction of my photography. My background as a Landscape Architect taught me about form and balance as they relate to landscape design. It is only natural that my photography is a reflection of this training. My first recollection7 of Weston's image was in 1991. I saw the image in a book of Edward Weston images. Seeing the work of Edward Weston, and in particular, his image, Pepper, 1930, helped me to see the relationship between my photography and my training as a landscape architect. For the first time, I saw form as the end and understood that this was what I had been attempting to do anyway. This knowledge opened my eyes and enabled me to recognize many new image sources.


___; "Edward Weston"; 1988; Aperture Masters of Photography; Number Seven; Aperture.
Davenport, A.; "The History of Photography an Overview"; Focal Press, 1991.
Maddow, B.; 1989; "Edward Weston His Life"; Aperture; 1989.
Newhall, B; "The History of Photography"; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Little-Brown and Company; 1982.
Newhall, B.; "Supreme Instants: The Photography of Edward Weston"; New York Graphic Society; Little-Brown; 1986
Weston, E.; "The Daybooks of Edward Weston"; Volumes 1 and 2; N. Newhall, editor; Aperture; 1981.
(1) How does one define "historical photograph?" For me, a historical photograph is a photograph that in itself has historical significance, to photography or to the world at large, is representative of a cultural icon, is from a histori cally significant photographer, or is important in terms of setting direction in photography. I limited my search to photographers who are no longer actively producing images.

(2) The History of Photography, an Overview, page 68.

(3) Supreme Instants: The Photography of Edward Weston, page 17.

(4) The Daybooks of Edward Weston, Volume 2, page 131.

(5) The Daybooks of Edward Weston, Volume 2, page 181.

(6) Aperture Masters of Photography; Number Seven, page 29

(7) Since this image is a famous image it is likely I saw it earlier, although I have no recollection.

Catherine J. Thompson, (408) 929-0729
Last Modified: March 3, 1996