“But a search for new and real Form is one of the motive forces in Edward Weston’s work.”
—Lawrence Bass-Becking 
Edward Weston’s Pepper No. 30 looms justifiably large in the pantheon of iconic Modernist photography. Even today, over ninety years after it was first photographed, this image remains startlingly fresh, visceral and immediate.
As is evident from the title, this was hardly the first pepper Weston photographed. Taken in August 1930, Pepper No. 30 reflects a progression in Weston’s approach to still life that began in earnest during his Mexican sojourn. There, cultural artifacts, juguetes, chayotes, gourds, ceramic wares, and even architectural elements were assembled and captured with a revealing eye for composition.
It was Weston’s return to Glendale in 1927 and the ensuing series of shell and vegetable images that sparked a true breakthrough. His initial foray into peppers came in August of that year when, inspired by a subject’s “convolutions,” he photographed it balanced atop a milk bottle. Evidently Weston was pleased by the composition, even if some of his friends were not. In his Daybook entry for 6 January 1928, Weston wrote: “Have also mounted my pepper and milk-bottle, which Henry [Henrietta Shore] and Ramiel [McGehee] do not care for, but Peter [Krasnow] and I like immensely. I say, as I have often said, no matter how important the person who comments on one’s work, listen with interest and respect, then go ahead with one’s own opinion. I say this even to a beginner. Mistakes must be self-realized!” Notably, it was an actual sculptor, Peter Krasnow, who seems to have best appreciated the strong sculptural nature of Weston’s first pepper.
Weston certainly approved of the composition because an unidentified “Pepper,” possibly this same 1927 pepper atop a bottle, was included in Edward Weston—Brett Weston Photographs, a major exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art in October–November 1927 and one titled “Pepper and Bottle,” appeared in An Exposition of the Decorative and Fine Arts of Today at Bullock’s Department Store in December 1928. Of the 102 photographs in the 1927 show and the fifteen photographs at Bullock’s, only one pepper made it into each.
In January 1929, Weston also shared his “Pepper and Bottle” with a group of friends gathered in Carmel to celebrate the birthday of photographer Roger Sturtevant, an event reported in The Carmelite as follows:
Roger Sturtevant’s birthday party last Saturday night proved two things,—first, the vitality of young Bohemia in Carmel; and the second, that rivalry by two artists in the same field can be superceded [sic] by mutual respect. / … / Edward Weston had brought with him by request a portfolio of his photographic work. / Roger Sturtevant makes a work of art of a group of fern-buds and a piece of broken glass. Johan Hagemeyer takes a bit of machinery and gives it majesty. Edward Weston puts a green bell pepper upon a milk bottle, or takes a part of a human torso. Looking at these photographs is re-discovering the world about us. Edward Weston’s work makes those who see it aware of beauty constantly before the eye, yet never before perceived.”
Weston had only recently moved to Carmel (early in January 1929), but once established in Johan Hagemeyer’s former studio, he began diligently investigating the aesthetic possibilities of peppers. In August 1929, The Carmelite reported:
Do not disturb Edward Weston too suddenly in his studio these days. / He is working upon peppers. / Green peppers. / For an hour at a time he alternates between his camera under the black hood, and from his subject, one green glossy fruit. Emerging and squinting. Returning and peering. It is earnest business. / Two negatives have already become prints. There is a strange marvel in them. The print is no mere representation. It is highly selective interpretation. / For hours and days that one pepper has posed. Ramiel MacGeehee [sic] says that all shopping these days for his great friend must be done with a photographic eye. First it is the artist’s model, and only at last becomes a salad. Catastrophes and griefs have occurred because visitors have come along and eaten the still life. / Edward Weston knows, and in his work shows, that for richness and mystery, the pepper is subject matter equal to the poet.
Weston experimented with a variety of staging arrangements in an effort to achieve optimum stability and lighting. From a pepper balanced atop a milk bottle he proceeded to photograph peppers placed on stone, what appears to be a bone, nestled in a ceramic dish and/or placed against a burlap, muslin or white cardboard backdrop.
Weston was not just photographing peppers in 1929, he was exhibiting them. Regarding his August to September show at San Francisco’s Courvoisier Little Gallery, Aline Kistler noted in her enthusiastic San Francisco Chronicle review: “… Each of Weston’s prints is very evidently a fresh solution to an individual problem of beauty. Even when the subject is practically the same, as in the two red pepper studies, one feels that each has been individually conceived and is not in any way an echo of the one that went before. …”
In all, Weston exhibited one unidentified pepper in 1927 (in Edward Weston–Brett Weston Photographs at the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art); one pepper in 1928 (Pepper and Bottle at Bullock’s Department Store); and one or two unidentified peppers in each of four shows during 1929. The 1930s, however, ushered in a dramatic increase: forty shows between 1930 and 1939!
Which brings us back to Pepper No. 30. Of the forty exhibitions noted above, twenty (including original venues and their traveling components) contained No. 30.
Weston’s enthusiasm for the seemingly limitless possibilities of these “convoluted” vegetables waned not one whit in 1930. On 19 July, he wrote: “… And I have worked with peppers again, surprising myself! Sonya brought several home, and I could not resist, though I thought to have finished with peppers. But peppers never repeat themselves: shells, bananas, melons, so many forms, are not inclined to experiment,—not so the pepper, always excitingly individual.…” His output was prolific. In fact, according to Conger, on four days in August alone, Weston “…took at least thirty different negatives of peppers…”
Alas, Weston’s vision was constantly challenged by the vicissitudes of long exposures spoiled by unexpected movement and changing light. On 1 August 1930, he opined:
The glorious new pepper Sonya brought me has kept me keyed up all week and caused me to expose eight negatives: —I’m not satisfied yet! These eight were all from the same viewpoint: rare for me to go through this. I started out with an underexposure—by the time I had developed the light had failed, and though I tripled my time again I undertimed! Again I tried, desperately determined to get it because I could ill afford the time. Giving an exposure of 50 minutes at 5:00 I timed correctly, but during the exposure the fire siren shrieked, and promptly the fire truck roared by followed by every car in town: the old porch trembles, my wobbly old camera wobbled, the pepper shimmied, and I developed a moved negative. Next morning I went at it again: interruptions came, afternoon came, light weak, prolonged exposures necessary,—result, one negative possible, but possible also to improve upon it. / I tried the light from the opposite side in the next morning light,—brilliant sun through muslin. Better! A reason for my failures. Three negatives made, on a new angle so different as to be another pepper. And more failures, this time sheer thoughtlessness: a background of picture backing was placed too close and came into focus when stopped down which I could not see but should have realized, the corrugations plainly show and spoil the feeling. …
What we see in Pepper No. 30 is the culmination of Weston’s experiments. Here, the problems of motion and lighting are finally resolved by nestling the subject in a tin funnel. Weston recorded this breakthrough on 3 August:
Sonya, as Ramiel did last year, keeps tempting me with new peppers! Two more have been added to my collection. While experimenting with one of these, which was so small that I used my 21 cm. Zeiss to fill the 8×10 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, recognizing 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!
Whether or not Pepper No. 30 is the negative Weston refers to, it genuinely does rank among his “best,” due in large part to the inspired use of the funnel. The former distractions of base and background are all but eliminated: no more competing horizontal supporting surfaces, glazed oval dishes, stone bases, or fabric backdrops. All emphasis is on the subject itself. Pepper No. 30 stands in near isolation, its muscular curves glowing evocatively from light washing down from above and reflecting up and around off the subtly embracing funnel. Weston has effectively sculpted this pepper with light, intensifying the photograph’s impact through a masterful combination of clean-lined form, emphatic contrast, and all but tangible texture. Weston clearly liked Pepper No. 30: according to his print log, he created twenty-five examples of it prior to 1936. 
No other Weston pepper was as popularly received as No. 30. From 1930 through 1958 (the year of Weston’s death), it was illustrated in nineteen publications from locations as diverse as California, New York, Massachusetts, England, France, Switzerland, and Italy. Its inaugural appearance occurred in the November 1930 issue of California Arts & Architecture. Here, critic (pianist and composer) José Rodriguez wrote:
… Needless to say that whoever is avant-garde in modern esthetic thought or action, has at one time or another found himself talking to Edward Weston and looking with wonder at his pictures. / Weston is crazy about photography in the same sense that Hokusai was crazy about drawing. There is, in fact, a strong affinity between these two artists—born in different centuries of different races. To both the physical thing is immensely significant. Superficially, this would make them both stark realists, but the second thought follows irresistibly that this very preoccupation with shape as a fundamental definition makes them both out-and-out mystics. … Let us take as an example, the series of pictures that Weston is making of the green pepper—that fragrant, spicy, bloated, shiny, juicy, grotesquely rounded half-fruit half-allspice so common in California. / Now, a pepper is many things to many people. It is a singularly polymorphous vegetable and its character is legion. To Weston, the pepper is a mysterious receptacle for many plastic truths. / At first, we are apt to believe that Weston has merely attempted to make suggestive pictures of the peppers. They suggest bronze statuettes. They give impressions of human organic forms; sometimes they are fairly accurate sculptural forms of groups of people in all possible positions and contortions. / We ask ourselves: Is Weston merely trying to catch the shapes of other things in one thing? Is he repeating the school-boy trick of photographing clouds because they look like bearded old men? / Let us look again at a couple of prints. Let us forget their uncanny mastery of black and white, the luscious texture of the print, the crisp delight of the little flashing lights which play in and out of the utter black voids. Let us consider only the outlook of Weston as this fine print tells it to us. / No, Weston is not interested in making green peppers look like the Laocoon group. He doesn’t give a damn, in fact, if he can make a pepper look like the Nike of Samothrace. What he does give a considerable damn about is to show, by means of a black and white print, that the green pepper is a thing that moves and lives, that has fragrance and richness. …
Weston greatly appreciated Rodriguez’s perceptive remarks, quoting him in his 1931 promotional brochure and noting in his Datebook:
José Rodriguez in an article for California Arts & Architecture, has started from a basis seldom touched upon—and it is the real base of my work, the very inner core: /…/ Then he goes on to make a valuable explanation to the public who are always finding symbolic meanings, literal association of forms, ideas, comparing a pepper to a madonna and child, or finding the face of Lincoln in a tree! He kills that idea. I never see these associated forms when I work, only parts of life as symbols of all life. After, when someone with literal mind points them out, the print is sullied thereby!
An interesting testament to Pepper No. 30’s universal appeal may be found in its final 1958 publication: the September issue of the Italian periodical, Fotografia: Rivista Mensile D’Arte e Tecnica Fotografica [Vicenza, Italy]. Here, its accompanying caption astutely sums up Weston’s artistic intent: “Weston cerca nella sintesi della realtà l’espressione pura, la metafisica astrazione dalla caotica apparenza reale…”  [Weston seeks in the synthesis of reality the pure expression, the metaphysical abstraction from the chaotic real appearance…” [Per Google Translate.]
Pepper No. 30 experienced an equally rich world-wide peregrination through sixty-nine exhibitions (including travel venues) between 1930 and 1958. Locations stretched from New York to Carmel, Boston to San Francisco, Brooklyn to San Diego, Chicago to Los Angeles, and Bloomington to Washington. Internationally, it was on view in Paris and Charleroi [Belgium].
Its first outing, Weston’s significant and highly lauded 1930 solo show at Delphic Studios in New York (duplicated at the Denny-Watrous Gallery in Carmel, California and subsequent travel venues) inspired a pictorial piece in the December 1930 issue of Theatre Arts Monthly. Here, Pepper No. 30, Egg Slicer, Cypress—Point Lobos, and Bones are beautifully reproduced, one per page, accompanied by this insightful introduction: “Edward Weston, California photographer, has made his camera a creative artistic medium. No painter of modern times is more cognizant of dramatic form. And like many another artist he finds his drama in the commonplace. The four photographs shown here are a part of Mr. Weston’s exhibit at the Delphic Galleries, New York.”
New York Times art critic, Frances D. McMullen also wrote glowingly of the peppers she saw in the 1930 Delphic show:
The spectacle of the market stall dumped into the art gallery now gives New York pause. On the market stall green peppers writhe and shine, cabbages sit sullen and stolid, celery shakes out ruffles. … / Who would think of peppers, cabbage and celery for their looks alone? Who would dream of posing them before the camera’s eye in quest of new revelations of beauty? Who would essay to draw from them, by photograph, messages of such import that even artists would acclaim the experiment? / Edward Weston has thought of it and has done it, not only with vegetables but also with other usually prosaic subjects, as his fifty photographs on view at the Delphic Studios attest. It is through him and his camera as a medium that one is treated to the extraordinary sight of lowly things just as they are, untranslated by the magic of crayon or brush, elevated to the sphere of art. / With all the ardor of the modernist, Mr. Weston has joined in the search that animates all modern art, the quest for ‘significant form’; but he has gone about it in a way utterly different from the painter, the sculptor, the sketcher. They look within, searching the soul for conceptions to transfer to canvas or marble. He looks about him, finding within easy reach abundant exemplifications of the qualities they grope for. / … / Seven green peppers hung on a gallery wall are seven green peppers any housewife would recognize—and rail at for the troubles their involutions offer to the stuffer. But they are ‘more than peppers,’ in the Weston phrase. They are seven varied expositions of composition and line, of mass and proportion, of texture and form. Here is a mere green pepper photographed against the bottom of a pan, but fancy sees it as a human torso poised with grace and strength; another, a mere green pepper catching the highlights on curves molded against a somber background, might be a modernist conception of a man’s struggle to evolve from lower forms. / …
Pepper No. 30’s final exhibition in Weston’s lifetime was the landmark retrospective 100 Photographs by Edward Weston, organized by and shown at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York from December 1956–February 1957. The Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) subsequently circulated it throughout the country as The World of Edward Weston. Beginning in April 1957, this highly popular show journeyed to twenty-five venues before concluding in November 1961— four and one-half years later—at the School of Fine Arts, Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
Despite Weston’s sense of the “excitingly individual” possibilities inherent in peppers, 1930 proved to be the last year in which he photographed them. So, what is it about Pepper No. 30 that makes it timeless and captivating? Although not necessarily speaking of Pepper No. 30, perhaps it is Weston himself who best sums up its inherent power:
First I printed my favorite, the one made last Saturday, Aug. 2, just as the light was failing, —quickly made, but 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 0. 2 Bull’s Eye, 3 1/2 x 3 1/2, have gone into the making of this pepper, which I consider a peak of achievement. / It is 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. / To be sure, much of my work has this quality, —many of my last year’s peppers, but this one, and in fact all the new ones, take one into an inner reality,—the absolute,—with a clear understanding, a mystic revealment. This is the “significant presentation” that I mean, the presentation through one’s intuitive self, seeing “through one’s eyes, not with them”: the visionary.
- Laurence Bass-Becking, “Foreword” to Exhibition of Photographs: Edward Weston, New York: Delphic Galleries, 1930. Weston met Bass-Becking, a Professor of Biology at Stanford University, in May 1930, a meeting he recorded in his Daybook on 22 May 1930 (Vol. 2, p. 163) as follows: “A recent, very enthusiastic visitor was Dr. Becking, scientist. In fact I have rarely had such understanding response,—and he reacted as a scientist. “You see things from the scientists’ viewpoint. I wish we could afford to have you around our laboratory,” he said. We are going to walk together all over Point Lobos someday: use each other’s eyes!”
- Edward Weston, The Daybooks of Edward Weston, vol. 2, California, ed. Nancy Newhall (Millerton, N.Y.,1973), 37. On 29 August 1927, Weston wrote in his Daybook: “This pepper sits on top of a milk bottle. It has amazing convolutions.” Frustratingly, no print or published image of this intriguing photograph has come to light.
- Ibid., 6 January 1928, p. 42.
- Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art, Exhibition: Edward Weston Brett Weston: Photographs, In the Print Rooms at the Los Angeles Museum … Oct. 4 to Nov. 2, ’27, exhibition catalogue, (Los Angeles, 1927).
- Bullock’s Department Store, An Exposition of the Decorative Arts of Today Presented By Bullock’s, exhibition catalogue, (Los Angeles: Bullock’s Department Store, December1928).
- “Personal Bits,” The Carmelite, 30 January 1929, 3.
- “The Village News-Reel: Edward Weston, photographer, will occupy the Johan Hagemeyer studio…,” The Carmel Pine Cone, 4 January 1929, 14. This brief notice of Weston’s planned establishment in Hagemeyer’s former studio reads: “Edward Weston, photographer, will occupy the Johan Hagemeyer studio at Mountain View and Junipero avenues after the eleventh of the month.”
- “Busy,” The Carmelite, 7 August 1929, 5.
- See Pepper, 1929 in the collection of Scripps College, Claremont, California. Gift of C. Jane Hurley Wilson ’64 and Michael G. Wilson, Wilson Centre for Photography, London, UK; Accession number AR40. Although cataloguing on the Scripps College web site describes this as a “stone pedestal,” it appears much like a bone.
- Aline Kistler, “Weston Prints Show Honesty And Simplicity,” San Francisco Chronicle, 25 August 1929, Section D, 5.
- Daybooks, 19 July 1930, p. 175.
- Amy Conger, Edward Weston: Photographs from the Collection of the Center for Creative Photography, (Tucson, Arizona, 1992), fig. 606/1930.
- Daybooks, 1 August 1930, p. 179.
- Ibid., 3 August 1930, p. 180.
- Edward Weston: Photographs, fig. 606/1930. In her comments for Pepper No. 30, Conger notes: “Weston made at least twenty-five prints of this image, making it his most popular pepper.”
- José Rodriguez, “The Art of Edward Weston: Edward Weston—Crazy About Photography As Was Hokusai About Drawing,” California Arts & Architecture 38:5 [misprinted as 39:5], November 1930, pp. 36–38.
- Daybooks, 11 September 1930, p. 185.
- Guiseppe Turroni, “Forme.” Fotografia: Rivista Mensile D’Arte e Tecnica Fotografica 11:6–7, September 1958, 19–20.
- “Photographs: Edward Weston,” Theatre Arts Monthly, 14:12, December 1930, 1073–1076.
- Frances D. McMullen, “Lowly Things That Yield Strange, Stark Beauty,” The New York Times Magazine, 16 November 1930, 7, 20.
- Daybooks, 8 August 1930, p. 181.
Pepper No. 30 Was Illustrated and/or Referred to in the Following Publications During the 1930s
Rodriguez, José. “The Art of Edward Weston: Edward Weston—Crazy About Photography As Was Hokusai About Drawing.” California Arts & Architecture 38:5 [misprinted as 39:5] (November 1930): 36–38. [Ill. p. 37]
McMullen, Frances D. “Lowly Things That Yield Strange, Stark Beauty.” The New York Times Magazine (16 November 1930): 7, 20.
“Photographs: Edward Weston.” Theatre Arts Monthly 14:12 (December 1930): 1073–1076. [Ill. p. 1073]
McMullen, Frances D. “Weston In New York” [excerpt from “Lowly Things That Yield Strange, Stark Beauty”]. The Carmelite 3:43 (4 December 1930): 7.
“Edward Weston.” Experimental Cinema 1:3 (June 1931): 13–15. [Ill. p. 13]
Armitage, Merle, ed. The Art of Edward Weston. New York: E. Weyhe, 1932. [Ill. Plate 5]
[Albright Art Gallery]. Modern Photography At Home and Abroad. Buffalo, New York: Albright Art Gallery, 1932.
“Beauty in Vegetables.” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle Magazine for Women (15 May 1932): 7. [Ill. p. 7]
[Weston, Edward]. [Untitled pictorial section composed of eight Weston photographs]. The School Arts Magazine 31:10 (June 1932): 602–604. [Ill. p. 604]
Reade, Mary Adda. “Edward Weston’s Photographic Art Between Covers.” Monterey Peninsula Herald (27 December 1932): 5.
Weston, Edward. “Light vs. Lighting.” Camera Craft 46:5 (May 1939): 196–205. [Ill. frontispiece, p. 196]
Pepper No. 30 Appeared in the Following Exhibitions During the 1930s
Delphic Studios [Organized by the Delphic Studios, New York, New York and duplicated by the Denny-Watrous Gallery, Carmel, California], Exhibition of Photographs: Edward Weston, New York, New York, 15–31 October with subsequent extension to 15 November 1930 (Solo). [Original venue for exhibit with subsequent travel to the Grace Horne’s Galleries, Boston, Massachusetts, about 25 April–? May 1931; the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Brooklyn, New York (revised version titled Forty Photographs of Plants and Plant Parts), 12 May 1931; and the Walden Gallery, Chicago, Illinois, June 1931.]
Denny-Watrous Gallery [Organized by the Delphic Studios, New York, New York and duplicated by the Denny-Watrous Gallery, Carmel, California], Edward Weston’s New York Show, Carmel, California, 25 October–6 November 1930 (Solo). [Original venue for exhibit with subsequent travel to the Vickery, Atkins and Torrey Gallery, San Francisco, California, 1–20 December 1930 and the Fine Arts Gallery, Balboa Park, San Diego, California, 30 May–June 1931. NOTE: The Denny-Watrous Gallery show duplicated and ran concurrently with the exhibition organized for the Delphic Studios, New York, New York, 15 October–15 November 1930; see above.]
Denny-Watrous Gallery, Portfolio Exhibit, Carmel, California, January 1932 (Group).
Albright Art Gallery, Modern Photography at Home and Abroad, Buffalo, New York, 7–25 February 1932 (Group).
M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, Group f.64, San Francisco, California, 15 November 1932–1 January 1933 (Group).
Denny-Watrous Gallery, F.64, Carmel, California, late January–1 February 1933 (Group). [Version of exhibition that originated at M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, 15 November 1932–1 January 1933 with subsequent travel, circulated in some instances by the Western Association of Art Museum Directors (WAAMD), to: [possibly WAAMD] Fresno State College, Fresno, California, 11?–25? February 1933; [possibly WAAMD] Fine Arts Gallery, San Diego, California, 15 August–4 September 1933; [WAAMD] Seattle Art Museum, Washington, 5 October–6 November 1933; and [possibly WAAMD] Portland Museum of Art, Oregon, November 1933.]
Ansel Adams Gallery, Group f.64, San Francisco, California, 1–16 September 1933 (Group).
Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art, Group F.64, Exposition Park, Los Angeles, California, Late May – June? 1934 (Group). [Possible version of an exhibition that originated at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, California, 15 November 1932–1 January.]
Morgan Camera Shop, Edward Weston Exhibition, Los Angeles, California, 1 November–24 December 1939 (Solo).
3 thoughts on “4 September 2019: Pepper No. 30”
A thoroughly researched and well written article. I especially liked the writing of Jose Rodriquez. I knew about him from his work with Opinion Magazine published in Los Angeles in the late 1920s. I was however, unaware of his insightful writing about Edward Weston.
Thanks, Michael. I’m so glad to have added to your exceptional store of knowledge!