Since 1988, the photographer Steve Pyke has photographed more than 200 Philosophers. These probing, black and white portraits were exhibited at Flowers Gallery in London last month. 
200% spoke with the photographer, whose work has been published in ‘The New Yorker’, about his love for black and white photography, which for him “suggests less, possibly leaving us with more to imagine” and what charateristics philosophers have in common: “they can seem socially to be very tolerant people, in debate they were less so”.
200%: You have been photographing philosophers since 1988. How did the idea occur to you to photograph philosophers?
Steve Pyke: I had photographed a few philosophers even before 1988, C.L.R. James notably. The idea came from meeting Sir A.J. Ayer and being bowled over by him. He was very frail but he had such an invigorated personality and a very inquisitive mind. I had no problem talking with him – of course I wasn’t talking to him as a philosopher or an academic – but we talked about life and death, about war, his working in the secret service, and we also talked about soccer. I was told I’d only have ten minutes with him, but those ten minutes became four hours. After that I thought I’d photograph the top ten philosophers, and that spiraled to seventy-eight. Now, with the second volume of Philosophers, it’s over 200 sittings.
200%: As you met so many philosophers can you tell us what philosophers are like? Do they have certain characteristics in common?
SP: Well, like any group, or family of people, everyone is different. Philosophers, when they are writing or talking philosophy, become extremely focused; the debate interests me, it’s all very intense. I noticed that whilst they can seem socially to be very tolerant people, in debate they were less so. This is true, though, of any group who feel passionately about their chosen vocation.
200%: Are you an avid philosophy reader yourself?
SP: My involvement with philosophy rests with the portraits I have made of this family. I mentioned earlier that I am not a Philosopher, nor do I came from an academic background. Someone recently said that they thought I had become a “sociologist of philosophers” in as much as I understand the lineage, the family tree of philosophy. If I had read papers or books before each session I doubt the portraits would be much different. The understanding, and inevitably the portrait I reach with a sitter, tends to be more direct and be determined by the immediate meeting.
200%: Do you have a life philosophy?
SP: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
200%: Can you explain something about your passion for black and white photography? Are you able to express yourself better in black and white than full colour photography?
SP: I don’t think I express myself any better, every portrait is different. I think that sometimes black and white suggests less, possibly leaving us with more to imagine. I photograph in color as much as black and white.
200%: Can you describe how The New Yorker commission you for a photography assignment?
SP: Yes, I have been working with the magazine since 1995, though I’m no longer on staff, which suits me now. An assignment usually work like this: I get a call from the creative director, whom I go to meet.  I usually read the piece beforehand and then we discuss directions in which to go with the session. This would also encompass the practicalities of the shoot, location, assistants even lighting. The details of hooking me up with my sitter is usually managed by them.
200%: On which projects are you working currently?
SP: I’ve just finished exhibiting ‘Philosophers’ in London at Flowers in Cork Street.  Currently, I’m exhibiting a ‘Los Muertos’ here in New York City at ArtJail gallery. These exhibitions have occupied a lot of my time.  Recently I have been photographing portraits for the Variety Club in London – a children’s charity event – which happens in late November. I’m about to head up the World Photography Organisation’s City Project in New York,  with workshops also this November. In addition, I have been chosen to be part of the Grand Jury for World Press Photo in Amsterdam in February. I’m still working on the Philosophers and hope to have a new generation published in twenty years time.
200%: Do you have any unrealised project(s) that you one day would love to see realized?
SP: As I have an interest in photographing Western, analytical Philosophers, I’m interested in the idea of photographing Eastern Philosophers. The idea seemed very natural to me of photographing them. The main thing that has prevented me, to this point, is commitment in time, which seems very Western in itself; that’s a project I’d like to see realized.
Interview conducted by Thierry Somers
Pictures by Steve Pyke: David Chalmers, November 11, 2003, LondonSilver gelatine print, Edition 10, 60.5 x 50.5 / 24 x 20 in, FG 8141 (above). Arthur Danto, November 4, 2004, New York. 
Silver gelatine print, Edition 10
60.5 x 50.5 / 24 x 20 in
FG 8142 (below)
‘Los Muertos’ Steve Pyke.
ARTJAIL, 50 Eldridge Street,
6th Floor NYC, NY 10002
September 23rd – October 26th 2011

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