Is Photography Still a Labour of Love?


Edward Weston maintained daybooks in which he incessantly jotted down notes that covered aspects of his daily life and work. As revealing as his photographs, his notes radiate the immense zeal that he possessed for his work. They also reveal his unrelenting nature. Weston wouldn’t settle for anything but perfection. He photographed because he cared and loved deeply. He felt a certain responsibility and concern in the depiction of his subjects, whether it was the landscapes, the insentient objects, or the nudes that he photographed. Here are a few extracts from his notes, at a time when he was preoccupied with photographing bell peppers. It was also during this time that Weston shot his most famous photograph titled Pepper No. 30.

“August 1, 1930, Carmel: The glorious new pepper Sonya brought 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 under exposure—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 o’clock, I timed correctly, but during exposure the fire siren shrieked and promptly the fire truck roared by followed by every car in town: the old porch wobbled, 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! 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 realised, the corrugations plainly show and spoil the feeling. So I have made eight negatives from the same angle and still must go on…

All this work has been done between moments of greeting tourists, printing, mounting, etc. Small wonder I’ve failed!

But the pepper is well worth all the time, money, effort. If peppers would not wither, I certainly would not have attempted this one when so preoccupied. I must get this one today; it is beginning to show signs of strain and tonight should grace a salad. It has been suggested that I am a cannibal to eat my models after a master piece. But I rather like the idea that they become a part of me, enrich my blood as well as my vision…

August 3, 1930, Carmel: Sonya keeps tempting me with new peppers! Two more have been added to my collection. While experimenting with one of these, which was so small I used my 21cm Zeiss to fill the 8 x 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 could go no further with it, yet something kept me from taking it to the kitchen… I placed it in the funnel, focused with the Zeiss, and, knowing just the viewpoint, recognised a perfect light, made an exposure of six minutes, with but a few moments preliminary work—the real preliminary was done in the hours passed. I have a great negative—by far the best.

August 8, 1930, Carmel: I could wait no longer to print them—my new peppers, so I put aside several orders, and yesterday afternoon had an exciting time with seven new negatives.

First I printed my favorite, the one made last Saturday, August 2, just as the light was failing—quickly made, but with a week’s previous effort back of my immediate, unhesitating decision. A week?—yes, on this certain pepper but twenty years of effort, starting with a youth on a farm in Michigan, armed with a No. 2 Bull’s Eye Kodak, 3 1/2 x 3 1/2, have gone into the making of this pepper, which I consider a peak of achievement…”

At Weston’s time, photography was a process ridden with trial and error. But it never deterred those who were interested in taking it up. I suppose they saw a certain redemption in their labour. But as technology progressed, the limitations and labour reduced monumentally. Even the darkroom, the last frontier, ceased to exist. Now the camera did everything. It could think for you, if you wanted, but even if you didn’t, it did not take much effort to create. One of the several consequences of this has been the drastic reduction in the level of attention that we render to the things we photograph. On the other hand, the simplification of the camera has resulted in the apathy shown towards the study of its history, which leaves us ignorant of those who afforded their subjects their undivided attention, people like Weston, Eugène Atget and O P Sharma. So the question that we all should be asking ourselves is do we photograph because we care? Or do we photograph because we can?

This article originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of Better Photography.