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What Were They Thinking?
Steve Pyke
Philosophers
Susan Silvey
Allan Gibbard by Steve Pyke. Source: flowersgalleries.com
Steve Pyke, "Allan Gibbard"

We humans (and many dogs) imagine we can discern the personality, goals and desires of someone from a long and close examination of his or her face. We sit at a computer and ponder the photo of a prospective date on Match.com, or shiver and avert our gaze when TV news shows us a murderer's rabid eyes. So it was with some interest that I, a student of ancient philosophy, went to the Flowers Gallery to see Steve Pyke's portraits of 11 contemporary philosophers.

Most of these black and white photos are close-ups of heads against a black background. The 24 by 20 inch works are exhibited at eye level in one small room so that you can look into the face of the philosophers, or follow his or her gaze off to the edge of the frame. Beautiful shadows shade their faces, carving out features and making the portraits seem almost sculpted. One work in the show pleased me more than all the others: a 6 ft. by 16 ft. rectangle of tiny contact sheets of the philosophers, some in color but all showing new and varying aspects of the personalities of the sitters. We watch them frown, then smile, turn away from us to a 3/4 view, then back to a full profile, their arms and hands, not just their faces, coming into view. Before my eyes these people came to life in their mobile and changing variety.

And yet, I kept looking for some relationship between the person and their beliefs. Surely the portraits of those who follow the school of Heidegger and other Continental existentialists and phenomenologists should have had fuzzy edges, filled with a pictorial equivalent of the bloated cotton candy that seems to invade my head when I read them. And shouldn't the photos of the logical positivists have had some painfully sharp edges, as their rigorous analysis of words and meanings seems to suggest? But I found no such relationships between thought and self. Indeed, there was no indication on the walls of the thoughts the philosophers expressed in their works.

Judith Thompson by Steve Pyke. Source: flowersgalleries.com
Steve Pyke, "Judith Thompson"

Nor, it seems, is Mr. Pyke, who was by chance present during my visit, much interested in such connections. As a more verbal and much less visual person, I was amazed when he told me that he had taken the photos without ever having read any of the works of his sitters. "How did you choose the one photo from all these other ones to put in your books?" A judgment he had made at the time, he acknowledged, adding that if he had to do it again, he might very possibly pick another still for his single, essential portrait.

Pyke has published two beautiful volumes of photographs of philosophers — many more than are exhibited at this show — that include 50-word statements from each philosopher on why they do philosophy. Leafing through both books, I delighted in reading the thoughts of these interesting people, although I was still unable to see any connection between what they say and what they look like, or how they were represented. Nevertheless, I recommend the books, both for the photographs and as a helpful bibliographic starting point for someone desiring to explore the practitioners of late 20th century philosophy.

Steve Pyke
Philosophers


Flowers Galleries
529 W 20th St.
Chelsea         Map

212 439 1700
flowersgalleries.com

Friday, May 20 to
Saturday, June 18, 2011
Hours: Tues-Sat, 10 to 6
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Central Booking Magazine
Soho Photo Gallery