Passion Fruit

Edward Weston quested for the perfect pepper

August 1, 1930:
"The glorious new pepper Sonya brought has kept me keyed up all week and caused me to expose eight negatives—I'm not satisfied yet."

Edward Weston photographed a lot of peppers. The most famous, sometimes labeled Pepper No. 30, was Weston in high form at the age of 44, full of confidence that he was forging in the smithy of his darkroom the tools for finding essence in simplicity, authenticity in the ordinary, a new vision for a new age.

Nine years later, on a back lot in Hollywood, Weston would photograph Rubber Dummies, MGM Studios. That photograph, on view at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, until December 31, was Weston the whimsical, full of the coy perversity that would mark some of his later work—cat pictures, a nude wearing a gas mask.

Two pictures, two different expressions of modernism, one artist.

From his writings, re the pepper:

"I tried the light from the opposite side in the next morning light—brilliant sun through muslin. Better! And more failures....But the pepper is well worth all the time, money, effort....It is beginning to show signs of strain and tonight should grace a salad. It has been suggested that I am a cannibal to eat my models."

Weston was living amid the vast but oddly cozy ocean light of Carmel, California. Neighbors included photographer Ansel Adams and poet Robinson Jeffers, whose druidic seaside tower still stands. Weston was the exemplary bohemian who had fled the Middle West with his cameras, a belief in astrology and a penchant for wearing a velvet cape.

And a love of being in love. Despite the bony American Gothic severity he'd brought with him from Illinois to California, there were romantic intrigues in Mexico, Santa Monica and Carmel while his wife, Flora, from the wealthy Chandler family (which would later own the Los Angeles Times), supported him.

Of all the people in his life, Weston seems most devoted to his four sons, but his first love was photography and its revelations of nudes, dunes, cypress roots, wrecked cars, toilets, mountains, seaweed, driftwood, rocks, seashells, radishes, cabbages and peppers.

August 3:
"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."

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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