In Conversation: Steve Pyke

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Leicester-born portrait photographer Steve Pyke started out working for NME and The Face in the early 1980s. Today he is the staff photographer for The New Yorker – a position he was awarded after Richard Avedon died – has been made an MBE and is one of the most important portrait photographers of our time. UNP founder and curator Grant Scott has known and worked with Steve throughout his career and caught up with him in New York.

Steve: What do you wanna talk about?
Grant: I thought we could talk about where you are now and about the incredible number of creative people you have photographed and how you approach shooting them, particularly photographers such as Eggleston and Doisneau.I thought that might be interesting, what do you think?

Steve: Yeah, that sounds interesting; I’m up for that.

I had a similar talk with Bailey and it worked out pretty well.

Steve: That sounds cool. He photographed me and I photographed him not so long ago, which was kind of funny. I’d photographed him before and met him socially, he’s great. One of the first books I bought was Black and White Memories and I’m looking at it now. It’s on my rack up here. I’ve got a huge respect for him, because I think that a lot of the time the Establishment in the UK has completely overlooked him. He’s underappreciated. I think a lot of it is to do with his ‘razz’, you know, his big public profile, which he kind of created himself. I just think he’s undervalued.

Grant: He’s also interesting in that he has always stayed true to a particular vision in his portraiture and you are very similar in the way that you have stuck to your way of seeing. Yours is a very particular aesthetic.

Steve: Yeah, it is and it is very similar. Portraiture for me and probably for him is about concentrating on the person I’m photographing, concentrating on the physiognomy. He’s very similar to me; he concentrates on the face.

Grant: You could say that Bailey’s work is timeless and you could certainly say that of your work also. I’m not saying your work is old-fashioned but you don’t see a lot of work like it anymore. It has become classic.

Steve: I shoot on my Rolleis still; I haven’t really got another camera. What I’m interested in is what we grow into; a lot of the people I photograph are quite old, and so I only shoot two rolls, 24 frames. In fact I don’t think I even finish 24 frames. I shoot very little film now, in fact less and less.

Grant: Is that because you are honing what you want much more quickly these days?

Steve: The people now come to a portrait session with me and they know of me and my work, because I’ve been around for 30 years and they can see my work on the web. So people are more psyched, more prepared in some way. They are aware of the event, because it is an event to be photographed. So they come to it with a preconceived notion of how it’s going to be. There is a sense of expectancy and a kind of urgency at the beginning of it, during the first couple of frames.

Grant: What you’re doing, I think, is creating iconic images, so if someone thinks that’s what they’re going to get out of the shoot, don’t they work harder for you?

Steve: Yeah, I guess they are defining portraits of people. It’s like my portrait of Keith Richards, who’s in the news at the moment, like he often is. I have a profile of him, which ran on the cover of The New York Times. It’s very difficult to create a defining image of Keith Richards, you know, because there are so many. But it kind of is, for me it’s a defining image because I was there and had the great fortune of meeting him. I have other portraits that have become defining images but how that happens I’m not sure; but people, when they come to be photographed, are certainly aware there is that possibility.

Grant: When you first started and we were working together you were exploring this, but it wasn’t so resolved as an approach.

Steve: Well, yeah. One of the first of the close-up portraits was of the American screenwriter, novelist and film director Sam Fuller in 1983. I was photographing a series of directors for myself. That’s really, really important that you photograph for yourself; I continue to do it and in fact the basis of my photography is pictures I shoot for myself. So, I found these close-up lenses in a shop and I took them with me but I’d never used them before, I’d never connected them to my Rollei, which is the same camera I shot with yesterday. When I did put them on and use them it was a complete revelation, to be able to get that close. I knew they would be amazing pictures and they were, and they became iconic of Sam. I hold tight to that picture. Of course I’ve changed as a person but I’ve photographed consistently the human face as a photographer and I’ve not really veered away from that. In the same way I’ve not really veered away from the camera that I use and in actual fact the way that I photograph. I’ve been consistent with it.

Grant: There was a time when we were all young guns and you were working for style magazines such as The Face and Arena but you’ve stayed true to your way of working, despite changes in fashion, in a way that perhaps others from that time have not.

Steve: Yeah, but I don’t take that much notice of fashion. Everyone has their own sense of what fashion is, so I never really wondered about what other people think, if I was in an old school. In fact that’s what people say to me now – that I’m ‘old school’. I hear that term all the time (laughs), I don’t see that as a bad thing.

Grant: I don’t see it as a bad thing either; in fact I think it’s a compliment.

Steve: I’ve stayed consistent. Mixed up in the very centre of photography is something about being prolific. Take the photographers I really respect, such as Nan Goldin. No matter where she is or where she’s pointing a camera she’s consistent to where she is and what it is that she does, even though she is in a very different place to where she was in 1977 and 1978. There also doesn’t seem to be much attention paid to the technical side with her. It’s about being in the right spot and then getting just a little bit closer. Bailey and Bill Eggleston, they’re consistent.

Grant: You mention Eggleston, whom you have photographed. He, like a lot of the people you have photographed, are very intimidating characters. Yet your work always takes them head-on. You don’t ever seem to be intimidated.

Steve: You mean intimidated by the expectation of meeting someone or intimidated photographically?

Grant: I think it’s a combination of both. You have to have that force of personality to get what you want.

Steve: Yeah, well to photograph the human face you have to have a connection with the person you’re photographing and that takes the greater part of the time you are there to photograph them. If I’m with someone for an hour, say, like I was with Keith Richards, then I will only be photographing for about 10 minutes max. The rest of the time is spent slowly getting prepared and shooting the breeze. There were lots of questions I wanted to ask Keith obviously, because he’s a huge figure and the Stones are to me. When you get to meet someone like that there are a load of things you want to ask them. The time is put into the moment, not the setup and conversation. There’s no reason to be intimidated, I’m looking for that point in the conversation of understanding – or not, maybe that’s equally interesting.

Grant: Do you feel that moving from London and taking on the position at The New Yorker made things easier or maybe harder?

Steve: It doesn’t make any difference; you’ve got to have a sense of responsibility to a magazine. It’s a really big deal working for The New Yorker. There are a whole host of things you go through before a shoot, research and things. I’ve always really enjoyed that part of it. When someone asked me to photograph the novelist Philip Roth, I say fuck yeah! There’s not a lot of stuff by him I haven’t read, and I’ll go out and get his latest book straight away. It’s amazing to get an opportunity to photograph someone like that, because I never thought I would. There’s a whole list of people I want to photograph; they’re people who are significant cultural figures: Muhammad Ali, Fidel Castro and Bob Dylan – Dylan would be great – people like that. But Roth was a big one for me, and a picture editor here knew that, so when the opportunity came up, they called me. As a photographer you are playing an objective role, but my place within a portrait session is to be subjective, not objective. I want to know the opportunity I have is not just to make a great portrait of someone, it’s to meet them and that’s what is interesting to me. Sometimes now I look at my pictures and think that the meeting was more important. Do you know what I mean?

Grant: I know exactly what you mean. I’ve always said that a great portrait is proof of a great conversation.

Steve: Yeah, that’s what it is.

Grant: There are very few photographers over the past 100 years who you could say have been able to create a body of work featuring portraits of the significant cultural, social and political figures of their time. Karsh comes to mind.

Steve: Karsh was massively prolific, Arnold Newman also, although I’m not a big fan of his work.

Grant: But you can now be judged alongside people like that.

Steve: I’ve got a few years left (laughs) and I can’t see myself being anything other than a photographer. This is it, this is what I’m meant to be doing. I had been in doubt for a while, whether you could get creative self-expression and be paid for it.

Grant: Do you think being in New York has allowed that side of your career to grow, whereas it wouldn’t have done if you had stayed in the UK?

Steve: The first 10 years in the UK, I was photographing for The Face and NME pretty much straight away because of the access I had and because of the character I was at the time as well. I got put on the road with bands all the time. But since I started working with the likes of Greg Pond at Details magazine in New York 20 years ago a lot of my clients, who were editorial (which is much less so now as there is less editorial commissioned), were based in New York. I took on my first studio here on the Bowery in 1998 and was going backwards and forwards between Britain and the US. I had a young family and I was doing two weeks on and two weeks off, so when The New Yorker position came up in 2004 it was a no-brainer really because I realised it was the point when I should move over here properly and create a studio where I could work and also work on my own projects. I’m staying consistent to my long-term projects, one of which has been running for 23 years, photographing my children. The bodies of work are not just about significant people, they are also about people who are not known. In the same way I recognise the great influence on me of August Sander [the German documentary portrait photographer]. It’s not only about the possessed, it’s also about the dispossessed. That’s what I’m interested in.

Grant: Do you think that you exist outside the photography world? You do travel your own road.

Steve: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I don’t have that much to do with it. I was honoured by the Royal Photographic Society and I was given an MBE in 2004. I picked it up, put it in a Jiffy bag and sent it to my mum because I knew that she’d appreciate it. When something like that happens to you, you become part of the photographic establishment, whether you like it or not. But I work on the outside of things, I’m interested in helping people coming through, that’s great, but I’m not interested in the trinkets and the baubles. It’s not how I work. The photographer, by nature, is an outsider.

Grant: It’s a lonely profession.

Steve: Yeah, but I’m a massive social character (laughs), so I’m not a lonely person socially but work wise more and more I’m on my own. I think, “am I going to take an assistant, or just this tripod, this black cloth, a couple of pieces of gaffer, a couple of rolls of Tri-X and my Rollei?” More and more I arrive so low-tech. First of all people don’t expect it. I went to photograph the actors Robert Duvall and Sissy Spacek together and the client said: “You’ve got to come an hour before to get the equipment checked in.”. And I said: “No, no, it’s me and a case,” and they couldn’t get their heads round it. I said I just needed a room above the 30th floor to ensure we had good light. Then we just go to it. When you work like that you simplify everything, there’s less bullshit around you. You keep everything pure.

Grant: I’ve always loved your work but I also have total respect for you because it seems that you could time travel through the history of photography, as happy working for Life in the 1950s alongside Eugene Smith as at any other time.

Steve: That’s a massive name to put someone alongside.

Grant: You know what I’m saying, he would want to be shooting for The New Yorker.

Steve: Yeah, I do. This is my time, yeah. You could also say that you could put me down in 1890. Someone the other day called me a Victorian photographer, which I thought was strange but funny, but it’s kind of true because if I’m using natural light, a tripod and a camera there’s not much that’s changed there really. In fact there’s nothing that’s changed.

Grant: That’s what I think is so interesting. You do what you do your way and it works for you. So where do you go from here?

Steve: I’m quite happy and I don’t see any reason to stop. Like I was saying about the photographs of my family, they are going to be the last pictures that I shoot, hopefully. If I’m in the right place, if I’m not walking the streets of New York and they’re in Hastings. If we’re together, then they will be the last pictures I shoot. The last pictures have to be about the people who are around me, the loved ones. That has always been the basis of that work. For me photography is completely about mortality, not just of the person you are photographing but your own as well. It’s an instant gone the moment you’ve done it, and that’s what you are recording. You are recording a moment that’s passed.

Grant: Could you ever have imagined that you would be in the place physically and photographically that you are now when you started out in the early 1980s? It’s a hell of a journey.

Steve: Yeah, it’s a journey in what people think of you and the responsibility they are going to give you in what to photograph. But it’s not that big a leap in what it is that I do. The way in which I photograph for The New Yorker is pretty much the same as I did in the beginning. I don’t think about it, I just do it. It’s not that I’m not thinking about the shoot, I’m constantly thinking about that.

Grant: Photography for life, job for life?

Steve: Photography for life, it’s not a job, believe me. I’ve worked in factories and stuff like that, this isn’t working (laughs), no, no, I’ve been very lucky. It’s not a job, it’s a vocation and above all it’s like a means of creative self-expression, which is a mouthful, but it is. I would be a poorer person for not having had that.

Grant: Listen Steve, I’m not going to take up much more of your time, or we’ll talk all night.

Steve: It’s been fun though, hasn’t it?

Grant: It has and for me it’s endlessly fascinating to talk about photography and not overanalyse everything, to talk about the reality of what it is.

Steve: Yeah, and people’s realities are going to be different from each other’s, depending on what they do. I’m from a working class background in the Midlands; this wasn’t supposed to have happened. It’s important to get a balance.

Grant: I agree, and it’s good to hear that everything is going so well.

Steve: …And it’s nice to talk again.

© Grant Scott 2016

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