Passion Fruit

Edward Weston quested for the perfect pepper

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Then he had the bright idea of placing the pepper inside a funnel, "adding reflected light to important contours."

On August 8, after printing the picture, he knew he had a masterpiece. He recalled the exposure: "Just as the light was failing—quickly made but with a week's previous effort back of my immediate, unhesitating decision. A week?—yes, on this certain pepper—but twenty-eight years of effort, starting with a youth on a farm in Michigan, armed with a No. 2 Bull's Eye Kodak, 3 1/2 by 3 1/2, have gone into the making of this pepper."

Weston would live until 1958 and age 71. He made fine pictures until 1948, when he was incapacitated by Parkinson's disease. By then his style had drifted toward both morbidity and cuteness, the sort of thing that makes the rubber dummies unsettling.

He'd also stopped keeping daybooks by then, but we have an account by his second wife, Charis Wilson, who was with him that day in 1939 on the MGM back lot. "The sky was blank white and sunless," she wrote. "I pulled one of the dummies out. He was a heavy creature, of dark, spongy rubber, with a cast face that was unnervingly realistic."

It's hard to imagine that these rubber dummies could have kept Weston "keyed up all week," as a pepper once had. But if they lack the authority of Weston's shells or peppers, they have the wistful authority of another sort of truth—that life is a cosmic prank. How Warholian, how postmodern.

They are a grim joke at a time when Weston would soon be getting nostalgic for the passions of his pepper period. In 1942 he wrote to one of his sons that he was having "thoughts ‘of the good old Carmel days'—of Bach, and boats and boys growing up; it does not seem so long ago, really isn't."

But it was irretrievable. As he wrote: "Life is fluid, ever changing."

He summed it all up toward the end of his life: "I tried my lifelong to open the eyes of everyone—my own eyes too—by showing how extraordinary the most simple things in this wide and wonderful world."

Henry Allen won the Pulitzer Prize for his photography criticism in 2000.


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