Edward Weston is considered to be one of the most influential American photographers of the 20th century. One of his most famous works, titled Pepper No. 30, is a B&W photo of a single green pepper with beautiful, soft lighting. Here’s a fascinating, little-known fact about the piece: it was shot at an aperture of f/240 with an exposure time of 4-6 hours.
Photographer Marc Silber of Advancing Your Photography was recently given a tour of Weston’s home in Carmel, California, by Edward’s grandson, photographer Kim Weston. While discussing his grandfather’s life and work, Kim shared the interesting exposure details of Pepper No. 30.
Edward ran into a problem while shooting still life photos with his view camera, Kim says. The closer you get to a subject with your view camera, the narrower your depth of field is. To capture the relatively small pepper completely in focus from up close, Edward needed an extremely small aperture.
So, Edward made his own stops for his lens, eventually settling on a f/240 aperture — essentially turning the view camera into a pinhole camera. With such a smaller aperture, exposing Pepper No. 30adequately with natural light required an ultra-long exposure time of about 4-6 hours.
Here’s the 14.5-minute long video tour of Weston’s home (Kim begins speaking about Pepper No. 30at 5m46s, and note: there’s a bit of nudity in the video):
On August 3, 1927, Edward placed the particular pepper in Pepper No. 30 inside a tin funnel, which allowed natural light to illuminate the vegetable in a 3-dimensional way.
“A lot of those vegetables and that series were those long exposures,” Kim says. “He would set up his subjects, and he lived in a rickety house. A car or truck would go by and shake the house, ruin the exposure, and he’d have to start all over.”
Other previous sources quote Edward as saying that the pepper photo was a 6 minute exposure. Wikipedia currently offers this quote from Weston’s writings:
It was a bright idea, a perfect relief for the pepper and adding reflecting 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 on in hours passed. I have a great negative, ‒ by far the best!
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.
Silber believes that Kim’s details about the photo are more authoritative.
“I would definitely go with Kim Weston, since he no doubt heard it from his dad or uncle, and that’s pretty close to the source,” Silber tells PetaPixel. “As far as Weston’s own quote, I have to dig into the daybooks to see if this was indeed about pepper #30 or one of the other 37 exposures, which it quite possibly was.”
P.S. Silber also notes that if you’d like to learn more about the concept of “making your own stops,” he covers the subject in his new book, Advancing Your Photography.