Portraits in Philosophy


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Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Not so with Pyke. Strangeness is not a criterion for inclusion in the Philosophers series. Only if they are nominated by at least two or three other prominent philosophers will Pyke contact said philosopher and create their portrait.

Portraits and Philosophy

Plenty of portraits are testimony to this. Granted, the portrait series has its share of wild eyebrows, unkempt beards, and weird noses. That would be completely contrary to what originally inspired him to make the series. So, we need a different frame of reference. One photographer that comes to mind is Walker Evans, particularly his series Many are called ; For this project Walker Evans took candid pictures of subway passengers in New York.

Portraits and Persons | Cynthia Freeland

He did this by hiding his camera underneath his coat and photographing the random people who sat across from him. In this series, too, one encounters some unkempt bears, odd looks, and weird noses. But, as is the case with Pyke, one cannot say that the photographer is deliberately seeking out such features. It would all depend on who happened to sit in front of his lens on that particular day in the subway. Taking the subjectivity of the photographer out of the equation, in favour of the automatism of photography, was thus partly what the series was about.

It is here that we see a notable difference with Pyke. There is no anonymous observation in the Philosophers series. All philosophers consented to being photographed and participated in the process. Taking pictures without permission or taking the photographer out of the exchange was never on the cards. Instead he could come very close to his subjects, creating a sense of intimacy that is noticeably lacking in the subway series.


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So perhaps the work of someone like David Bailey or, more recently, Platon offers a better comparison. Similarly, Platon was able to portray an impressive list of world leaders, including Putin, Erdogan, Berlusconi, and George W. Bush, for a series called Power The sitters in these two other series also share a distinctive group— identity influential politicians, London-based celebrities as is true for the Philosophers series.

Bailey and Platon clearly glamourize their sitters. There are no blemishes in their appearance. Lighting is even arranged so that their heads seem surrounded by a halo. Nothing could be further from the way Pyke photographs his philosophers. Still, as we have already established, and as is clear from the pictures, Pyke does not set out to mock, belittle or expose the philosophers. So, what are the portraits about then? Why does he opt for the all-revealing close-up, if demystification is not the aim? Proximity and puzzlement The series Astronauts consists of photographs of the gear that astronauts took with them into space, some of the rocks they brought back from the Moon, and some of the instruments that were crucial in their endeavor.

As he explains in the documentary Moonbug, he had always been awestruck by space travel and by missions to the Moon in particular. But becoming an astronaut himself just never was a live option Pyke quit school when he was seventeen. To understand why these close-up photographs would count as the next best thing, it helps to keep C. Roughly speaking, icons represent in virtue of resembling their referent, whereas indexes represent in virtue of a physical relation to their referent, e.

Photographs, it has often been pointed out, qualify as both icons and indexes.

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They will typically resemble their referent in some way, but are also directly affected by the referent, in that light bounces off the object in front of the lens and onto the contact sheet. By making a photographic imprint of those moon rocks or of the last foot to have left its print on the moon, Pyke seeks to establish a direct line of contact between himself and the Moon.

It is this sense of physical proximity that produces the chills that he reports feeling in the presence of these astronauts and their space gear. My contention is that we need to interpret the Philosophers series in much the same way. Thus, the portraits gave Pyke and are meant to give the viewer a chance to establish a connection and get up close and personal with these intellectual stars. Often, the closer an admirer can get to the object of admiration, the better.

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A couple of things are worth noting in this context. First, Pyke does not always opt for the close-up and keeps a fair amount of distance when the sitter is someone he does not admire — as was pointedly the case for his famous portrait of Augusto Pinochet for The New Yorker Rather, intimacy here refers to the experience of physical proximity, of seeing the philosophers from so close a distance as is ordinarily reserved for those who are actually on an intimate basis with them.

After all, puzzlement is also at the very least a beautiful byproduct of philosophy. Pyke very much welcomes the puzzlement that his portraits tend to induce. But whereas Freeland is somewhat disappointed, G. Hegel would have been downright horrified to witness such depictions of philosophers.

Pyke, of course, does none of these things. He does not seek to become well acquainted with his sitters a photo-session will typically take less than an hour. So, according to Freeland, his approach does not appear particularly suitable or attuned to its subject. Rarely do they have bodies. Nor do they employ any tools of their trade.

Socrates Portrait

In that respect they appear rather mute. We can contrast this with other well-known portraits of philosophers. Here the clothing, setting, tools of the trade, and depicted activity are clues that enable an artist to portray someone as a philosopher. That said, his approach does have one big advantage.

There are no silly hats, unusual chairs, or attention- grabbing trousers in his pictures. When you see the early eighteenth-century portraits of members of the Kit-Cat club of which the philosopher John Locke was also a member the first thing that strikes you is the huge wig they all wear.


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  • That prominent and, from our perspective, peculiar feature makes it extremely difficult to see how the faces of these Club members differ. As a result, they all look the same. With Pyke there is no chance of a similar distraction. Because the focus is entirely on the face it is not at all hard to see the sitters as individuals and to see how their faces differ.

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    But there is more to it than that. Freeland is also disappointed with the manner in which these close-ups are made. To find out why that is, it is helpful to compare portraits of philosophers with portraits of people in other professions. Take pharmacists. Like philosophers, pharmacists can be depicted in their professional role. But to portray a pharmacist as a pharmacist one will need to include some clues as to their occupation, e. Without any such details it seems impossible to portray a pharmacist as a pharmacist. This is different with philosophers. It does seem possible to portray someone as a philosopher without including any details in terms of clothing, setting, and tools of the trade.

    But Pyke refuses to adopt a similar strategy in his series.

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