"I see my life's work as photographing the human face." (Steve Pyke)
"You ask a philosopher a question and after he or she has talked for a bit you don't understand your question any more." (Professor Philippa Foot)
Philosophers is the outcome of an intriguing and ambitious project: to make portraits of the world's one hundred leading thinkers. The beautifully-produced volume from Cornerhouse Publications (Sunday Times
Small Publisher of the Year in 1990) contains seventy eight of them, from the late Freddy Ayer to Richard Wollheim, so the project is about 4/5ths of the way to its goal. The pictures, printed full-format from the original square negatives are hard-edged and frequently uncompromising, but all suggest that these are people who have interesting views and clear ideas. If you wanted to know what Baudrillard, Derrida, Chomsky, Popper, Quine, et al look like, this is the book for you. Yet despite the stylish character of certain of the photographs, the book is more than just the Arena Guide to Modern Philosophers.
Steve Pyke's photography - with its visual allusions to Diane Arbus, Irving Penn and Richard Avedon - is worth a second look, not merely because the portraits are striking, but because they suggest other layers of meaning and interpretation of the ideas and lives of "philosophers" (a loose term, for Pyke has included a few people in his collection who would be as readily claimed by other disciplines - sociology, history and literature, for instance). Although some might say that looking for the "world's leading thinkers" in our postmodern world is an enterprise doomed to failure, the project is a serious attempt to interpret and represent one segment of the contemporary intelligentsia.
Still only in his mid-30's, Pyke is one of the most interesting portrait photographers in the UK, with a distinctive style remarkably free of gimmicks or pretentions. He works in a way which risks alienating his sitter, often setting up his camera within a couple of feet of their face, the better to trace the landscape of character. In this case his sitters were people for whom such physical proximity is unusual, to say the least: they may be accustomed to a minute examination of their ideas, but not of their faces. But then the whole project is shot through with ironies - not least that of heavyweight intellectuals allowing themselves to be photographed by someone hitherto best known for his rock-star portraits in The Face!
Yet by using natural light and a battered but quiet old twin-lens Rolleiflex of the type once favoured by pressmen and wedding photographers, the lack of the whizz-flash-clunk of modern kit helps to put his subject at ease. One sitter admitted to being apprehensive before the sitting, but found that Pyke's self-assurance helped him to enjoy the experience.
Pyke came to this project by a curious route. He first worked as a mechanic in the textile industry, then became a rock musician. Photography began to interest him in 1980, and after a typically individual approach to film and fine art studies at the London College of Printing (he worked on personal projects and rarely attended classes), he carved out a career for himself as stills photographer for Peter Greenaway and as pop-star portraitist for style magazine The Face. But getting from Shane MacGowan of the Pogues to Karl Popper of the philosophy of science was a big step.
Philosophers - professional, academic, even occasionally celebrated - are members of a closed and obscure community. For the rest of us, they might as well belong to an exotic tribe: as Professor Michael Frede of Keble College, Oxford puts it "philosophy is not just a profession, it's a way of life, a way of being." Nested within this world are a number of little coteries - logicians, metaphysicians, linguistic philosophers, etc - each with its own special language, rites, beliefs and weltanschauung. Unlike welders or doctors, what they actually do can be quite difficult to understand. "I'm off to devise a spot of metaphysics" doesn't divulge its meaning quite as readily as "I'm going to change the battery on the Cortina."
Despite common ignorance of philosophy we are inclined to hold those who practice it in some awe. Such feelings certainly lie at the heart of Pyke's personal quest: "before I started this project philosophy was to me like magic." His portraits aim to demystify the subject and those who practise it.
Steve first met a philosopher in 1988, when The Tatler commissioned him to photograph A.J. Ayer shortly before his death. His personal magnetism, tinged perhaps by the knowledge of his all too obvious mortality, captivated Pyke. He spent three hours talking to and photographing Ayer, and it changed the course of his life. Pyke decided to add a collection of philosopher's portraits to his other long-term projects, and he has pursued it with characteristic single-mindedness ever since. It has cost him a lot of time and money, for he has been to Europe and the USA in search of his subjects, as well as to the domestic groves of academe (mainly Oxford and Cambridge). All, apart from the Ayer commission, were self-funded: he must have spent close on £20,000 on travel and materials alone. Exhibitions and print sales have so far defrayed little of the cost.
But what do the subjects think of this attempt to scrutinise their world? The philosophers to whom I spoke - Michael Frede, Susan Hurley, Jean Baudrillard, Ted Honderich, Michael Dummett - were typically divided in their views about the project.
Oxford's Michael Dummett did not like his portrait - "I felt it was not altogether just", adding sceptically "can you read something about somebody's ideas from their faces?" Frede found that although his portrait was "unflattering" he felt that it had captured something characteristic about his features, and was even moved by the experience to speculate about the connection between people's personalities and their ideas.
Speaking from Paris, the guru of hyper-reality Jean Baudrillard (a photographer himself, although of "objects" not people) whilst vague in his memories of the sitting, declared himself Gallically enthusiastic about the whole idea - "l'idée est bonne" - though he recognised that it required a great investment of time and intellectual energy on the photographer's part. Yet he seemed doubtful as to whether it was possible to capture ideas and personalities in the same photograph, for "the frame of reference for each is so different. Philosophy is a generalising medium, whilst photography particularises."
Susan Hurley at St Edmund Hall, Oxford (another philosopher-photographer) felt that the idea of a photographer "trying to capture something of the mind is good." But she was not so sure about her portrait - "I think it cuts off the top of my head."
Ted Honderich of University College London, Ayer's successor as Grote Professor, had encouraged Pyke in his project because he felt that it "would advance my subject." He was the first to give Pyke a list of other people he should photograph. Pyke then asked all the others to give him their top ten "formative influences" and was luckily not too alarmed when he found he had a list of 23 different names from a mere three sitters! He had not expected the natural tendency for members of a speciality to nominate their colleagues. Honderich knew this would happen, and therefore gave Pyke a list which traversed the discipline. He also has a good theory for why the faces in the book are so assertive, occasionally even a little alarming. "Philosophers deal with ideas which are always disputable, for there are so few proofs, and things are not fixed. These people are used to defending their own philosophical patches, they are professionally uneasy."
Pyke asked each sitter to provide a brief statement of their own 'philosophy' to be printed next to the photographs. Some refused point-blank: how can you sum up a complex philosophical position in 100 words? Others found ways round it - Baudrillard asked his English amanuensis, Mike Gane, to find a suitable passage from his writings - whilst some contributed short pieces which are marvels in the elegant compression of a lifetime's work. Sir Anthony Kenny's brief discourse situating the subject between arts and sciences is an eloquent jewel, but others are rather uneasy attempts at a compressed CV, occasionally in the third person.
Do we really know much more about modern philosophers and their ideas as a result of this book? Can you read between the lines of their writings from a study of the lines on their faces? Perhaps not, but the enterprise was worthy and its results interesting, for they are part of an ambitious project to photograph the great faces of our time. Look out for future instalments.
Philosophers avaiable from Zelda Cheatle Press
Tel 0171408 4448
Fax 0171408 1444
ISBN Hardback 0951837184
Peter Hamilton is a sociologist and historian of photography. He is the author of Robert Doisneau: Retrospective (Tauris Parke 1992), and lectures at the Open University.
© Peter Hamilton