Edward Weston’s photograph, “Pepper No. 30,” is considered one of the most iconic modernist images. The making of this photograph, along with his other still lifes, not only fostered Weston’s development as an artist, but also contributed greatly to the evolution of photography as a modernist art form. Taken in 1930, “Pepper No. 30” shows a radical departure from the prevailing soft-focus and atmospheric Pictorialist style to a much more pure formal vision. Weston became convinced that “real photography can only be achieved through realism.” His new approach would become more graphic and sharply focused with its adherents in the later Group f/64 advocating pure and straight photography. By August 1930 Weston turned his attention to photographing the “livingness” of a pepper and “exposing its quintessence.” While arranging a pepper one day, he finally solved a considerable problem: he no longer balanced it against a muslin backdrop or a piece of white cardboard, but instead he ingeniously used a tin funnel to hold the pepper which added reflecting light to important contours of the pepper. He shot the pepper by setting the lens to a small aperture of f/64 to secure maximum sharpness for minute details and for sculptural forms. Weston excitedly described capturing the image in a journal:
“I must get this one today: the pepper is beginning to show the strain and tonight should grace a salad. It has been suggested that I am a cannibal to eat my models after a masterpiece. But I rather like the idea that they become a part of me, enrich my blood as well as my vision. 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 the perfect light, made an exposure of six minutes…I have a great negative, by far the best!”
Although Weston created several images of the subject, “Pepper No. 30” would be his most successful one. The long and smooth surfaces with gentle curves and the glow of the light reflecting unpredictably on the firm skin are enhanced by the contrasts between light and dark, abstract and tactile. The pepper moves beyond the banality of a vegetable to become an object of sensuous beauty and intense contemplation. It is both realistic and transcendent. In the tightly cropped composition, Freudian associations cannot be denied; the elegant and anthropomorphic shape would become reminiscent of the female nudes that Weston would later make that further explored natural forms. Today, “Pepper No. 30” is included in the collections of major art institutions such as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It remains one of the most powerful and transformative images in the lineage of modernist photography.