I was right!

If you were to ask me to name my all-time favourite photographer, I would probably struggle to choose one. However, if you asked me for a list of my favourite photographers it wouldn’t need to be a very long list before I could guarantee that Edward Weston would be on there.

I have long admired Weston’s work. He was an American photographer active in the early decades of the 20th century and as far as I know all his work was in monochrome, which suits me fine as I haven’t significantly changed my opinion since I last wrote about my fondness for black & white photography.

One of things I particularly like about a lot of Weston’s work is that he often focuses on relatively mundane objects, such as vegetables, and presents them in a way that makes you look at them with fresh eyes and appreciate their intrinsic beauty. A particularly fine example of this is arguably one of his most famous images, with the gloriously unexciting sounding title of Pepper No. 30 (NB that’s a link to the Wikipedia article on it – yes, it’s a famous enough image to get its own Wikipedia page – which doesn’t actually contain a picture, at least at the time of my writing, but you can easily enough google one for yourself if you want).

As you might expect from the title, this is a photograph of a pepper – more specifically a capsicum pepper (or bell pepper as Weston himself probably would have called it, coming from the USA). The title also suggests that he took quite a few other photos of peppers – in fact, a quote from Weston in the Wikipedia article indicates that there were at least 50 in total, though No. 30 definitely became the most famous of them and is the finest of the handful that I’ve seen (only ever as reproductions in books or on websites).

It is, to be sure, a relatively interesting pepper with a lovely gnarly shape that provides a lot more to work with than any pepper I’ve ever come across in a supermarket. It was also, of course, expertly positioned, lit, photographed, developed and printed by a master of his art (actually, at least some of the prints were done by Edward Weston’s son Cole; he, along with his brother Brett, was also a professional photographer in his own right though neither of them achieved the same level of fame as their father).

Many years ago, between 2001 and 2003, I did a series of drawings and paintings based on Pepper No. 30 (though I don’t think I knew its official number at the time). I think they can all be seen (along with a few other pieces based on Weston’s photos) here on Flickr. I don’t think I did any others, and if I did I certainly don’t seem to have got any photos of them.

Probably my single favourite of my own Weston pepper inspired works is this oil pastel painting from July 2001, which I still have hanging on my wall:

Pepper (oil pastel)

Of course, since Weston’s photo was monochrome I had to make an artistic decision for this and the other colour versions I did as to what colour the pepper should be. In all cases, I went for green. This far down the line I can’t remember if I was working on a hunch or just giving rein to my own preference for green (as a colour, not necessarily as a choice of pepper). I’m certain that I didn’t know what colour the original pepper was and at that time Wikipedia was only a few months old and even if I’d thought to check it (which I’m fairly sure I didn’t) it was still a couple of years away from getting an article about Edward Weston, let alone one specifically about his Pepper No. 30.

In fact, while I’ve definitely looked at the Edward Weston page a handful of times over the years I don’t think I discovered the pepper one until about a month ago. When I did finally read it, I was delighted to read in the very first paragraph that it “depicts a solitary green pepper in rich black-and-white tones, with strong illumination from above”. I just checked the revision history and that sentence was in the very first version of the article, written by Wikipedia user Lexaxis7 (whom some folks call Tim). According to his bio, he is a photo historian specialising in the early 20th century, so although he doesn’t cite a source for that particular information I assume it’s correct that the pepper was green.

Incidentally, while I don’t often delve into the page editing history on Wikipedia, it’s quite handy on occasion to be able to do so. In fact, I appear to have my own somewhat outdated bio page, though sadly it doesn’t provide links to any of the articles I helped edit (most, if not all, of them at least 15 years ago). Amongst others I contributed 3 edits to the banjo page, including this one which was apparently the second ever edit to that page (not counting the initial version of the page), as well as one to the crwth page (at the time, I was a fairly close personal friend of Cass Meurig, who was more or less the only active crwth player in the world, so I felt reasonably confident to edit the article based on conversations I’d had with her about the instrument); there were others too (including at least a handful of maths based ones, those perhaps done largely to assuage my guilty feelings about surfing Wikipedia when I was supposed to be researching my PhD in algebra) but none that I remember very clearly.

Talking of delving back, while I was digging out the photos of my paintings based on Weston’s pepper, I also came across my own (somewhat less successful) attempts at photographing peppers, dating back about 10 years. Like Weston (though I didn’t know it at the time) I used a green capsicum pepper, but I also included a red (and presumably hot) chilli pepper, as well as a few cloves of garlic for some of the photos. And like Weston, I presented these as black & white photos (though I was actually shooting digitally, in colour, and desaturated my images later – in fact I still have the colour versions, albeit not in my public photostream, and I think the monochrome ones work better). My favourite of them, with which I shall leave you for now, is this one:

Peppers

Way more than 50…

I’ve never read the book 50 Shades of Grey, nor seen the recent film version, and have no particular intention of doing so.   Still, it seemed a good excuse to get a pop-culture reference into the title of this post, which is actually about photography.

For a long time I’ve had a particular fondness for black & white photography.  Partly this is, no doubt, a matter of nostalgia as I used to be a member of my university photographic society and made quite extensive use of their darkroom (which was equipped for b&w work only) for a year or so (almost 15 years ago, at the tail-end of my pre-digital days).

Largely, though, it’s because I love the look of well-executed monochrome images and the moods they can evoke.  Granted, a well-executed colour photo can also be a joy to behold and there are many subjects that require colour to work well, but often I find that the colour can be a distraction and that the monochrome image reveals details that you would otherwise miss.

Here’s a not particularly great example from my own photo collection.  The original image was shot in colour (about 6 years ago).  This is how I tend to work most of the time in digital photography, since it’s possible to remove the colour later but not to add it back in:

Moth

It’s a nice enough picture but not especially gripping or memorable (and even the “in-focus” bits are slightly out-of-focus, which becomes more obvious at larger sizes).   Admittedly the same is true of the desaturated version below,  but I think the removal of the colour in this case makes for a slightly stronger image, as the shapes and (in this case especially) the tones are more apparent:

Moth (B&W)

Had the moth been a bit more colourful or the foliage a bit more varied, there might have been just as much lost as gained in the shift from colour to b&w.  As it is, I think much is gained and little lost here.

Sometimes it’s much harder to decide between colour or monochrome versions of an image.  Here’s a photo I took on a trip to Catalonia last August:

Campanario de Reus

And here it is in b&w (and slightly cropped):

Campanario de Reus #2

In this case I love the blue of the sky and the subtle colours in the stonework that are apparent in the colour version, but I also love the effect when the colour is removed and the tones are allowed to come to the fore.  Of these two images I definitely prefer the second one, but that’s more due to the (IMHO) stronger composition with the square crop than to the presence or absence of colour.

I recently came across a lovely discussion of the benefits of monochrome photography, which is largely what inspired this mini-essay of mine.  Unfortunately, I didn’t make a careful note of where I found it but I think it was on one of the Weekly Imogen videos on YouTube, which are created by a London-based photographer called Mark and his regular model, Imogen, who also post regularly on Flickr under the name of unexpectedtales. Here’s a picture of Imogen (by Mark), which also doubles as a link to their Flickr photostream, which in turn contains a link to the YouTube series (not, unfortunately, to the video I was after):

See Imogen's top 10 favourite shots on Flickr

(Incidentally, this particular image is one of the top 10 favourite pictures of herself that Imogen selected for the linked video and is also one of my favourites of her; many of their photos are in colour but I think that a lot of the strength of this particular image comes from the fact that it isn’t.)

Anyway, to paraphrase Mark or whoever else was making the statement about monochrome photography, he said something along the lines of: “The joy of black and white photography is precisely that it isn’t just black and white but thousands of shades of grey in between… the monochrome image invites the viewer to engage with it in a way that colour images don’t, requiring your imagination to fill in the missing colours.” I’m fairly sure he also made the point about colours sometimes being a distraction that I mentioned earlier, which is a view I’ve held for a long time. Monochrome photography (perhaps paradoxically, given that it’s been around for much longer than colour photography, which tends to lack this particular advantage – or at least doesn’t have it so intrinsically built in) offers us a new way of seeing the familiar.