For over 30 years he has photographed famous faces. Now Steve Pyke's second volume of portraits of the world's great thinkers lays bare his talent for mapping the human face
The most difficult thing for me is a portrait. You have to try and put your camera between the skin of a person and his shirt. (Henri Cartier-Bresson)
I always wondered exactly what Cartier-Bresson meant by that quote. Was he talking purely metaphorically, or did he mean that to take a great portrait you must get as close as possible to your subject? Whatever the answer, I always think of it when I look at Steve Pyke's portraits.
For over 30 years, Pyke has photographed the great and the good up close and personal. He has positioned his Rolleiflex mere inches from the faces of musicians, film directors, astronauts and politicians. He has photographed both his sons week by week as they moved from infancy through childhood to adolescence. There is something pared down about his style and obsessive about his methodology. It is as if he is attempting to take essentially the same photograph ? or the same kind of photographic portrait ? over and over again, and, by doing so, he is repeatedly reminding us how infinitely expressive the human face can be.
Consider his Philosophers series, which started 23 years ago in 1988 when, on assignment for a magazine, Pyke came face to face with the late AJ Ayer, one of the great British thinkers of the 20th century. He was told he could have 10 minutes with Ayer, who was very ill at the time, and whose reputation was formidable-going-on-daunting, but their conversation carried on through an extended photoshoot and for another few hours afterwards. So began another of Pyke's photographic obsessions: the Philosophers series.
A book simply called Philosophers, containing 78 portraits, duly appeared in 1993 on the small Cornerhouse imprint. It sold out and was reprinted by Zelda Cheatle in 1995. Both imprints are now much sought after by photo-book collectors. The second volume of Philosophers is published this week, and a show of the work is on display at Flowers gallery in London.
Thus far, Pyke has photographed over 200 philosophers. The first series included the likes of Karl Popper, CLR James, Isaiah Berlin, Iris Murdoch and Jacques Derrida and Jean Baudrillard, all of whom have since died, as well as Noam Chomsky and Daniel Dennett. It is a book of extraordinary thinkers, many of whom, unsurprisingly, have extraordinarily furrowed faces. Up close, in unforgiving monochrome, Ayer looks impenetrable, the ageing CLR James mischievous, and Berlin extremely cross ? perhaps with the camera's intrusive proximity. (Having worked with Pyke over the years on various editorial commissions, I have grown used to his methods. But I remember being utterly intrigued when I first saw him place his camera mere inches from an astonished David Byrne's face. Since then, I have seen countless others surrender willingly, or reluctantly, to his scrutiny, but the result is always somehow the same yet utterly different: a map of the human face that reveals something of the life lived or the particular ? and often peculiar ? reverie of a single moment.)
The portraits that make up the new volume of the Philosophers series seem subtly different in tone and composition to the previous set. Several subjects ? Anthony Appiah, Arthur Danto, Rae Langton ? are looking away from the camera, downwards or to the side. The results tend to be less harsh, and the subjects seem more reflective, as if caught in mid-thought. Many of the philosophers are young, too, and some seem relaxed and bright-eyed ? Delia Graff Fara keeps Pyke's camera at arm's length and seems utterly herself, arms folded, composed. Perhaps Pyke's gaze has mellowed as he has grown older.
As with the previous volume, Pyke has opted to accompany the portraits with a quote from each philosopher about their discipline and the role of philosophy in general. Without the texts, could these portraits possibly tell us anything about philosophy, or philosophers in general, other than that they are serious people? Of that, I am not sure, but neither am I particularly concerned about whether they do or not. They are portraits of individuals who share a vocation, but they tell us more about the endless variety of the human face, and Steve Pyke's power to plot it, than they do about that vocation. He could slip his portraits of, say, Martin Scorsese or John McCain into the exhibition and they would fit in seamlessly ? such is his photographic signature.
The Philosophers series, like all portraits, tells us something about mortality ? theirs and ours. "As time passes by and you look at portraits," Cartier-Bresson once said, "the people come back to you like a silent echo. A photograph is a vestige of a face, a face in transit. Photography has something to do with death. It's a trace." One senses that AJ Ayer utterly understood that when he submitted his elderly, vulnerable self to Steve Pyke's scrutiny, setting this epic project in motion. In Pyke's portrait, Ayer's face is fixed forever in its calm inscrutability, defying us ? and Pyke ? to read it, sending the curious viewer elsewhere in search of meaning: towards his work, towards his words.
Now see this
Haunting the Chapel: Photography and Dissolution is the enticing title for an exhibition of vintage, anonymous, vernacular and spirit photography by a disparate collection of artists, living and dead, that includes JH Engstrom, Rut Blees Luxemburg, Walker Evans, Tina Modotti and Arthur Conan Doyle. The unifying formal factor is the blurred or dissolved image. An intriguing show, even if the sum of the parts don't quite add up to a convincing whole. Until 8 October at Daniel Blau gallery.