Bringing thinkers into focus: Steve Pyke

by Antonia Case on August 27, 2013

It’s a dismal affair when the faces of people we don’t wish to remember – such as modern-day celebrities – easily spring to mind, while it’s difficult to conjure up the faces of people that really matter.

For a quarter of a century British photographer Steve Pyke has tried to “out” some of the world’s greatest thinkers, with almost 200 philosophers appearing in his acclaimed Philosophers series. Pyke’s aim was to bring philosophers into people’s lives because he believes that they’re, well, worth remembering.

Pyke is a photographer for the The New Yorker and is celebrated for the simplicity of his art – he sits subjects beneath a sunlit window and snaps with the minimum of fuss, just a couple of rolls of Tri-X, gaffer tape, a tripod and his Rolleiflex camera. He says he likes to photograph the extraordinary, like philosophers, in a way that makes them more ordinary.

His shots are just faces, swimming in darkness; we are drawn to the eyes, the turn of the head, the forehead, the mouth. Do they look sinister? Kindly? Intelligent?

Unlike the body, the face’s features can’t hide behind fashion, nor be sculpted by physical exertion over time. The defenseless face is ““nudity crying its strangeness in the world, his loneliness, death, hidden in his being,” writes French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas on the face-to-face encounter. The face communicates with others even before we have started to speak.

In Pyke’s Philosophers’ series in particular, we may be prone to seek signs of intelligence in the portraits, especially in the eyes. Ayer’s eyes, for instance, look piercing, yet if we were told Ayer was a basketball coach or an actor, would we see his eyes in a different light?

Your look is how you live your life, says Pyke, who likes to get unflinchingly close to his subjects so no wrinkle or blemish goes unnoticed. You’re a drinker, and it’ll show: a smoker, or a clean living person, someone who loves the sun or shade. But whether we can glimpse a person’s character and personality from a face is a topic that dates back to the ancient Greeks.

Termed physiognomy, Aristotle was receptive to the idea that we can infer character from features, and many novelists in the 18th and 19th centuries such as Charles Dickens and Charlotte Brontë, used physiognomy in character descriptions. Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is a classic tale of physiognomy; the portrait bears his sins – growing old and disfigured due to his indulgences.

Arthur Danto 2003

“History has been the central category of my philosophy, and the way we define our experience through narrative structures—through stories. The thing about stories is that we don’t know how they are going to turn out, and how different the beginning is going to look to us when we see how it all ended. Philosophers mainly get hung up on the connection between consciousness and the brain, but my interest is in the historical structure of consciousness—how the consciousness of someone living in the thirteenth century has to have been different from the consciousness of someone living as we do in the twenty-first century.” Arthur Danto

Delia Graff Fara 2004

“By doing philosophy, we can discover eternal and mind-independent truths about the ‘real’ nature of the world by investigating our own conceptions of it, and by subjecting our most commonly or firmly held beliefs to what would otherwise be perversely strict scrutiny” Delia Graff

Physiognomy, often written off as pseudoscience with no scientific foundation, is nevertheless the heart of portraiture, whether in a photograph, painting or sculpture. Portraiture is a conversation, or dance, between the artist and the sitter. The artist’s skill is to interpret the face of the person before them. “My place within a portrait session is to be subjective, not objective,” says Pyke.

Pyke spends over three-quarters of any session time chatting to his sitters, and forming a connection with them. An hour session will typically involve less than 10 minutes of shooting. Whether he is searching for character, personal identity, the soul, only Pyke knows or doesn’t, but it’s notable when something is captured such Arthur Danto, one of the most arresting images of the Series. The central tenet of Danto’s philosophy is the way we define our experience through stories, and how different the beginning is going to look to us when we see how it all ended. If we were to view Pyke’s Philosopher series 100 years from now, our perception of the portraits would be much altered.

Photography is about mortality, says Pyke. “Photography is a suspension in time, it is also a memory, a moment captured and immediately gone.” Pyke is aware that the best he can achieve in any session is to make a portrait that reflects where the sitter is at that moment in time. And once that moment is over, the face will change again.

John Gray-2003

“Other animals do not need a purpose in life. A contradiction to itself, the human animal cannot do without one. Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?” John Gray

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