"Pepper No. 30" (1930) and "Nude" (1936) by Edward Weston
Around the time I began taking pictures in earnest, I saw a traveling exhibit of Edward Weston’s photographs at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. Weston is regarded as one of the preeminent photographers in the first half of the 20th century. Perhaps his most distinctive works were black and white still lifes of fruits and vegetables, some of which were on display in the Atheneum show. They were gorgeous, not just gorgeous enough to make you want to eat them but gorgeous to look at, as works of art. "I am 'old fashioned' enough to believe that beauty — whether in art or nature, exists as an end in itself,” Weston declared. Elsewhere he said, “My true program is summed up in one word: life.”
He particularly liked photographing peppers, because he said they “never repeat themselves.” Not that he made a career out of photographing objects that might also be eaten. He was also known for landscapes and for nudes that often featured his mistresses as models. They all share a certain sensuous quality, even the vegetables. Much to Weston’s chagrin, he found that critics steeped in the then-current vogue for Freudian psychology would describe his peppers in overtly erotic terms. While his expressed aim was to “make a pepper more than a pepper,” he insisted it was still a pepper, not a penis or a vulva. And yet if you look at the body of his work, you will see an obvious kinship between his vegetables and his nudes, as well as his seashells and even some of his landscapes. Weston accused his critics of seeing things in his work that weren’t there. But perhaps he just couldn’t see things in his own work that were there: the lushness and sensuality of all creation, the muchness of it.
Weston liked taking pictures of peppers because their forms never repeated themselves. And while he did not make a career out of photographing vegetables, he might well have. There are over 600 varieties of peppers in the world, coming in every conceivable shape, size and color. There are 16,000 species of mushrooms, which he also photographed; 4,000 varieties of tomatoes; 7,500 kinds of apples; 1,600 types of bananas; and 4,000 potatoes (although no one ever accused potatoes of being sexy). There appears to be not just one kind of anything in creation, neither animal nor vegetable – except, of course, for the one kind taking the pictures, although that kind alone seems to come in every conceivable shape, size and color all by itself.
If life is your true program, there it is obviously much to work with, and who knows where it ends. When I was growing up, it was still possible to believe that ours was the single planet in the universe that harbored life. Until recent decades, the only planets known to exist were in our solar system, and none but our own appeared hospitable to life. Since 1995, thousands of planets have been identified outside our solar system, and habitable planets in the Milky Way Galaxy may number in the billons. Multiply that by the hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe, and you may have more Earth-like planets altogether than all the grains of sand in all the beaches of the world, each potentially harboring life in some form. And if they do, you can bet there won’t be just one kind of anything, except perhaps for that one kind that takes pictures of the rest.
Surveying the immensity of creation – of trying to – one is struck by the sheer profligacy of it. Consider the lowly pepper, the subject of some of Weston’s most iconic images. He was known to spend a week or more photographing a single pepper. At that rate it would take him a dozen years to photograph just a single specimen of every variety of pepper there is. Why so many peppers? It is as if God or nature -- or whatever you want to call it -- doesn’t know when to stop. And it is the same with everything, not just here but also potentially on every habitable planet in every galaxy in the universe.
For a photographer, this muchness explains why we will never run out of things to shoot, no matter how narrowly focused our interests. I am primarily a landscape photographer and seldom venture more than a few miles from home to take pictures that are exhibited all over the United States. I doubt I will ever produce the kind of monumental works that Ansel Adams did, because Yosemite National Park is not in my backyard, as it was for him. Yet I have not come close to exhausting all the possibilities in my own neighborhood. There is always some nook or cranny that has yet to be explored, then re-explored at a different season or a different time of day. Because I shoot close to home, I can be out there on short notice with my camera and tripod when the fog rolls in or the snow is still clinging to branches or a stream is barely iced over. And it’s not just the terrain that is always changing; so am I. I can pass the same spot a thousand times and not see anything, and then something catches my eye in a certain light the next time around. All I have to do is keep my eyes open.
I am not the only one out there taking pictures, of course. Weston was constrained by heavy large-format camera equipment and the need to develop film in darkrooms using noxious chemicals. Nowadays nearly everybody can get into the game with a digital SLR camera or a smart phone. Something like a trillion photographs are taken every year, not nearly as many as all the grains of sand in all the beaches of the world but still utterly beyond human comprehension. Figured another way, if you glanced at every single image, it would take you over 3,000 years to look at them all, working around the clock. Meanwhile, trillions more would be piling up year in and year out, most of them on social media. Judging by what I see on Facebook, those who post them are not motivated by beauty for its own sake, as Weston was, although they certainly could be summed up by that one word: life. There are pictures of beloved pets, meals eaten at favorite restaurants, vacation pictures -- the kind the stuff that used to find its way into family photo albums, now posted for the entire world to see. What can account for our strange compulsion to photograph everything under the sun? It’s all too much, and yet we can’t seem to get enough of it.