Three Faces of Derek de Solla Price
Updated: May 13
This post is cross-posted from the Connecting with Collections blog.
I recently read a fascinating article about the early years of the discipline of history of science in Cambridge. It was helpful to me in lots of ways but one idea the author, Anna-K Mayer, had was to examine various photographs of the key figures in that story – famous historians and scientists like Herbert Butterfield and Joseph Needham. These men were public figures, and they took care over how they appeared in photographs. So we can get an idea of the public image they wanted to create for themselves from the photographs that survive of them.
I thought I’d look at three pictures of Derek de Solla Price, the subject of my research, with a similarly critical eye. They are from different stages of his career, but all three were published. There is a question, of course, about how much control he had over them, but even at a young age he had a thirst for publicity – within a couple of months of finding the Equatorie of the Planetis manuscript he had splashed the story in The Times. So I’m confident that from the start of his career he had a fairly clear idea of how he wanted to be portrayed. Anyway, here’s the first photo:
It’s from Varsity, the Cambridge University newspaper, and accompanies the first article that was written about Price’s discovery of the manuscript. Smartly dressed but youthful, gazing directly into the camera, he is every inch the confident, upstart young academic. His mouth is slightly open, as if eager to enlighten us about what he has discovered. And of course he is superimposed onto a picture of the manuscript, linking himself as firmly as possible with his discovery and his newfound career as a historical detective.
The next is this photo, courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University:
In 1959 Price moved to Yale, where he became Avalon Professor of the History of Science, setting up a new department there. This photo (left) was taken while he was at Yale, probably in around 1970. It shows a more settled, thoughtful Price, who looks sidelong at us with a glance that is not unfriendly, but seems to assess us critically. This is certainly how one would expect the avuncular expatriate English academic to appear. The Englishness is emphasised with the pipe, which at that time would have reminded many people of former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (below).
The final photo was taken to accompany an interview with Price in the popular science magazine OMNI. The photographer was Malcolm Kirk, a noted portraitist, and the date was August 1982, when Price was 60 – just a year before he died.
Price still has his pipe, but this is a wholly different shot. With the pale-rimmed glasses and dark suit, he is more dignified than before. He is photographed from above, making him smaller and certainly less intimidating than in the previous photo, but he is also leaning forward – there is no sense of retirement for this 60-year-old. He looks straight at the camera, not aggressively, but inquisitively and again somewhat critically. The strapline on the accompanying article called him “Yale’s iconoclastic historian of science”, and the photograph conveys a vivid impression of this. With a model of the Antikythera Mechanism in front of him, this is no distant theoretician, but a man who knows about things – really complicated things.
It’s always useful to remind ourselves that a picture, even a photograph, can never be taken at face value. It is the result of a huge number of decisions on the part of artist and subject: clothes; hairstyle, lighting, props, background, body language, facial expression, and so on. We may not always control these consciously, but they can still be revealing. And by comparing photographs from different times, we can get a good idea of how someone’s image can change. It may be an image they wish to promote, or an unvarnished self-image, or a combination of the two – but whichever it is, it gives us plenty to think about.