The Flame of Recognition

Weston, E. (1971) The Flame of Recognition. New York: Aperture

There’s an online copy of the book here at MoMA.

No List of Contents or Index.


March 10th, 1924, Mexico City
For what end is the camera best used ? . . . The answer comes always more clearly after seeing a great work of the sculptor or painter …that the camera should be used for a recording of life, for rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself, whether polished steel or palpitating flesh.


August 3rd

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 21 cm 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 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, recognized a perfect light, made an exposure of six minutes, with but a few moments preliminary work-the real preliminary was done in hours passed. I have a great negative – by far the best.


April 24, 1930, Carmel

I sent the following statement co Houscon, Texas, where I am showing forty prints during May.

Clouds, torsos, shells, peppers, trees, rocks, smokestacks are but interdependent, interrelated parts of a whole, which is life.

Life rhythms felt in no matter what, become symbols of the whole.

The creative force in man recognizes and records these rhythms with the medium most suitable to him, to the object, or the moment, feeling the cause, the life within the outer form. Recording unfelt facts by acquired rule, results in sterile inventory.

To see the Thing Itself is essential: the Quintessence revealed direct without the fog of impressionism – the casual noting of a superficial phase, or transitory mood.

This then: to photograph a rock, have it look like a rock, but be more than a rock. – Significant presentation – not interpretation.

– and I sent these Technical Notes:

These photographs – excepting portraits – are contact prints from direct 8 x 10 negatives, made with a rectilinear lens costing 500 – this mentioned because of previous remarks and questions. The portraits are enlarged from 3¼ x 4¼ Graflex negatives, the camera usually held in hands.

My way of working –
I start with no preconceived idea – discovery excites me to focus-then rediscovery through the lens – final form of presentation seen on ground glass, the finished print pre-visioned complete in every detail of texture, movement, proportion, before exposure – the shutter’s release automatically and finally fixes my conception, allowing no after manipulation – the ultimate end, the print, is but a duplication of all that I saw and felt through my camera.


December 10, 1931, Carmel

I feel that I have been more deeply moved by music, literature, sculpture, painting, than I have by photography, that is by the other workers in my own medium. This needs explaining. I am not moved to emulate – neither to compete with nor imitate these other creative expressions, but seeing, hearing, reading something fine excites me to greater effort ( inspired is just the word, bur how it has been abused! ) . Reading about Stieglitz, for instance, meant more to me than seeing his work. Kandinsky, Brancusi, Van Gogh, El Greco, have given me fresh impetus: and of late Keyserling, Spengler, Melville ( catholic taste!) in literature. I never hear Bach without deep enrichment – I almost feel he has been my greatest “influence.” It is as though in taking to me these great conceptions of other workers, the fallow soil in my depths, emotionally stirred, receptive, has been fertilized.

Whenever I can feel a Bach fugue in my work I know I have arrived.


April 18, 1938, Los Angeles

I never answer published criticism, good or bad, about myself. I have found praise often just as wrong and more humiliating than disapproval.

I don’t mind adverse or even abusive criticism, for I believe in my work, KNOW its importance, and know damn well where I am going without being told.

One difficulty in making any estimate of my work lies in the fact that I have done with a “period” ten years before it becomes popular. Another is that when exhibiting I usually select everything from one period-that which interests me most: the present.

My “faces and postures” period, my heroics of social significance, were done about 1923: the head of the revolutionary Galvan, General under Villa, Guadalupe orating ( or ranting), head of the cement worker, head of Nahui Olin (psychological) etc.

My industrial period was over by 1922. My facades, ( “Immobile surfaces”) were done in Mexico from 1925-27 ( when I was accused of being in N. Y. copying another photographer’s work). A large collection of pulquerias ( only two ever printed for myself) and done before I ever heard of Atget. In this latter period are included interiors of peons’ huts and tenement houses.

And what does anyone know of my past year’s work? 1300 negatives,-21,000 miles of searching. No, I have not done “faces and postures,” except one dead man ( wish I could have found more) and many dead animals; but I have done ruins and wreckage by the square mile and square inch, and some satires.

It seems so utterly naive that landscape-not that of the pictorial school – is not considered of “social significance” when it has a far more important bearing on the human race of a given locale than excrescences called cities. By landscape, I mean every physical aspect of a given region – weather, soil, wildflowers, mountain peaks – and its effect on the psyche and physical appearance of the people. My landscapes of the past year are years in advance of any I have done before or any I have seen.

I have profound interest in anyone who is doing a fine job of photographing the “strident headlines,” but to point it as the only way in which photography can be “faithful co its potentialities” is utter roe. There are as many ways to see and do as there are individuals-and there are far too few of them.

Atget was a great documentary photographer but is misclassed as anything else. The emotion derived from his work is largely that of connotations from subject matter. I have a deep respect for Atget: he did a certain work well. I am doing something quite different.


April 24, 1930

I start with no preconceived idea –
discovery excites me to focus –
then rediscovery through the lens –
final form of presentation seen on ground glass,
the finished print previsioned complete in every
detail of texture, movement, proportion,
before exposure
the shutter’s release automatically and finally
fixes my conception, allowing no after manipulation –
the ultimate end, the print, is but a duplication
of all that I saw and felt through my camera.


November, 1946

To all critics, pro or con – my work or anyone’s work – in photography, painting, sculpture or music, I say ( digo yo) you can’t explain a Bach fugue. If you could you would explain away its very meaning – its reason for existence.



January 1, 1944, Wildcat Hill

Sorry to have upset you with my “backyard set-ups and their titles.” You guess that the war has upset me. I don’t think so, not more than the average dislocation. I am much more bothered by the antics of some Congressmen and women, or by radio “commercials.” As to Pt. Lobos, it has been open to the public for months, but I have had no desire to work there. No, darling, don’t try to pin pathology on me.

Your reaction follows a pattern which I should be used to by now. Every time that I change subject matter, or viewpoint, a howl goes up from some Weston fans. An example: in the E.W. Book (Weyhe) is a reproduction of “Shell & Rock – Arrangement”; my closest friend, Ramiel, never forgave me for putting it in the book because it was “not a Weston.”

And finally (I could go on for pages) when I turned from shells, peppers, rocks-so-called abstract forms, Merle Armitage called my new direction the “hearts & flowers” series.

So I am not exactly surprised to have you condemn (though I don’t get your “Surrealist” classification) work which will go down in history … great photographs on which I will stake my reputation. I could go on, but you might think me defensive. I could explain my titles ( I really had fun racking them on AFTER “creation”) but surely explanation would insult you.



July 9, 1924, Mexico City

Clouds have been tempting me again. Next to the recording of a fugitive expression, or revealing the pathology of some human being, is there anything more elusive to capture than cloud forms! And the Mexican clouds are so swift and ephemeral, one can hardly allow the thought, “Is this worth doing?” or “Is this placed well?” – for an instant of delay and what was, is not! The Graflex seems the only possible way of working. Yesterday’s results gave me one negative worth considering: to be sure I made but three, but time and patience were spent in waiting and studying.

My eyes and thoughts were heavenward indeed-until, glancing down, I saw Tina lying naked on the azotea taking a sun-bath. My cloud “sitting” was ended, my camera turned down toward a more earthly theme, and a series of interesting negatives was obtained. Having just examined them again I am enthusiastic and feel that this is the best series of nudes I have done of Tina.

pp. 16-17