I have spent almost a quarter century photographing philosophers. For the most part, philosophers exist, and have always existed, outside the public spotlight. Yet when we reflect upon those eras of humankind that burn especially bright, it is largely the philosophers that we remember. Despite being unknown at a time, the philosophers of an era survive longer in collective memory than wealthy nobleman and politicians, or the popular figures of stage, song and stadium. Because of this disconnect between living fame and later recognition, we have less of a record of these thinkers than we should. Our museums are filled with busts and paintings of long-forgotten wealth and beauty instead of the philosophers who have so influenced contemporary politics and society. My aim in this project has been the modest one of making sure that, for this era at least, there is some record of the philosophers.
I did not initially plan to spend more than 20 years with philosophers. It was the fall of 1988. I was working for a number of different magazines, primarily The Face, taking photographs of the kind of cultural figures who typically rise to public awareness — musicians, artists, actors and novelists. One day I received an assignment to photograph the philosopher Sir Alfred Ayer. Ayer was dimly known to me, England being one of those rare countries in which each era has a few public philosophers — respected thinkers who are called upon to comment on the issues of the day. When I was growing up in the Midlands of the United Kingdom in the 1960s, that figure was Bertrand Russell. Later, he was replaced by Ayer. Still, I knew very little about Ayer other than what I recalled from snippets on BBC question time.
I was told in advance that he was very ill, and that my time with him would be limited to 10 minutes. When I walked into the room, he was wearing an oxygen mask. There were two women in the room. I can’t remember how we got beyond those evident barriers — the social and the physical — but I remained with him for four hours. We talked about many things, but mainly the Second World War. Apparently, many Oxford philosophers had been involved in the war effort, in intelligence. I recall in particular a story Ayer told me about having saved De Gaulle’s life from a faction of the French resistance.
I can’t identify why I found him such a compelling and fascinating figure. Partly it was him. But it was also the fact that philosophers come with a certain combination of mystery and weight. Our discussion gave me a burn to meet more philosophers. That is how my project started.
Philosophy is not the only profession I have cataloged. For example, I also have taken over the years many photographs of filmmakers. But my relationship with filmmakers is very different than my relationship with philosophers. My extensive experience with film gives me the ability to make my own judgments of relative merit. A sophisticated appreciation of film is something that many of us can and do cultivate. In the case of philosophers, however, I am, like most people, at sea. The philosophers whose work is most admired by other philosophers are very different from the philosophers who occasionally float to public consciousness. These are not people with connections to the larger world of media (one thing I have learned over these many years is that the cast of mind that leads one to philosophy is rarely one that lends itself to networking). I could only hope to be guided to them by those who had themselves struggled with its problems.
After my meeting with Ayer, I devised a plan to ask each philosopher I photographed for three names of philosophers they admired. Initially, I planned to meet and photograph perhaps 15 philosophers, and publish the results in a magazine. I certainly had no plan to spend the next quarter century pursuing philosophers around the globe. But Ayer had given me the names of four — Isaiah Berlin, Michael Dummett, Ted Honderich and Peter Strawson. Each of them in turn gave me three names, and there was not as much overlap as I had expected. My initial plan had to be modified. Soon, I settled on a formula. If a philosopher was mentioned by three different philosophers as someone whose work was important, I would photograph that philosopher. Of course, employing this formula required meeting many more philosophers. The idea of a short project with 15 photographs was rapidly shelved. To date, the list of those I’ve photographed is nearly 200 names long.
Throughout my career I have had to pursue my work with philosophers while making a living with my other professional work, and the cost has sometimes been high. But like any artist who has completed a large and demanding project, I have had good fortune.
Early in my career, I lived not far from Oxford University, a great center for philosophy for centuries. At that time, it employed many of the people whose names were mentioned most by other philosophers. In 2004, I moved to New York to take up a position at The New Yorker. The departments of philosophy at New York University and Rutgers University, like Oxford, are also staffed by many of the figures most mentioned by other philosophers. The New York area also has many other first-rate philosophy departments. Philosophers are a garrulous and argumentative species. Their chief form of social interaction is the lecture, which is typically an hour long, and followed by an hour of probing and aggressive objections from the audience. If one of the figures mentioned three times by other philosophers was not teaching at one of these departments, they almost certainly came to lecture at one of them at some point over the last seven years. My project has benefited from this happenstance. No doubt, I have missed many philosophers worthy of photographing. But had I not been in New York these past six years, I would have missed many more.
In the course of my work, I knew that most appreciators of art, even the most educated, would have but a dim window on the views of the philosophers I was photographing. So I asked each philosopher I photographed to supply 50 words summarizing their work or their view of philosophy (perhaps not surprisingly, several exceeded that limit.) These statements are as much a part of the work as the pictures themselves. Statement and portrait together form a single image of a thinker.
Most philosophers have spent their entire lives in intense concentration, developing and defending lines of argument that can withstand the fearsome critical scrutiny of their peers. Perhaps this leaves some mark on their faces; to that I leave others to judge.
Steve Pyke, a contributing photographer at The New Yorker and at Vanity Fair since 1998, has recently completed a series of portraits of the Apollo astronauts. The second volume of “Philosophers,” with more than 100 portraits, will be published by Oxford University Press in May 2011.
Full article and photos: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/10/31/philosophers-through-the-lens