In 1956, 13-year-old Sylvia Plachy was smuggled out of her native Hungary by hiding in a wooden cart the same year the Russians invaded. A dramatic personal history tends to inform later discussions of an artist's life. And so it is tempting to see Plachy's life as a highly regarded photographer informed by her traumatic past.
Plachy has spent her entire adult life in the city of exiles and immigrants, New York City. Her vantage has reflected the relentless curiosity of a longtime resident of New York's rich cityscape and an infatuation with the diverse people who call it home.
Her approach feels twofold. On one hand, it is rooted in both the tumult and the unique worldview of Eastern Europe. But it also feels as much informed by her exile status, as a citizen of the world. Plachy's photography has exhibited an abiding, borderless curiosity for hidden worlds and human vulnerability.
Known for her often off-kilter, kinetic compositions in black and white and her frequent use of an inexpensive plastic Holga camera (beloved for the imperfect but moody, shadowed, sublimely antiquated images it produces), Plachy's photographs can appear exquisitely timeless. She has said of her images that they "have to do with what memory looks like."
Over the course of her career, Plachy has documented biker conventions, tattoo contests, midwives and sex workers among countless other subjects as a photographer for the New York alternative newsweekly the Village Voice (where her "Sylvia Plachy's Unguided Tour" column ran for nine years). Her photographs also appear regularly in the New Yorker. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the George Eastman House, and her images have been collected in numerous books, including Red Light: Inside the Sex Industry and Self Portrait with Cows Going Home, a document of her travels over the past 40 years back to Hungary.
The esteemed photographer and mother of Academy Award-winning actor Adrien Brody (The Pianist) spoke to Creative Loafing in anticipation of her upcoming lecture at the High Museum of Art, Wed., Sept. 13 (7 p.m., Hill Auditorium) and an exhibition of her photographs at Mason Murer Fine Art Sept. 15-Nov. 4.
We have certainly become a society much more used to being photographed and videotaped. Have you noticed any changes in terms of comfort level these days in how people respond to the camera?
I used to love to go out in the street searching with my camera. I used to try to catch something on the fly. I used to be able to smile at someone and they'd forgive my picture taking.
Yes, cameras are ubiquitous and everyone is more aware of them. However, this situation has created a self-conscious society. Far from being more comfortable, people tend to be suspicious in their presence. When you use a regular camera, people will tend to strike a pose or tell you to get away. You can do street photography more easily by using a small digital camera sometimes.
Who are the photographers who have inspired you, and in what ways does their influence show up in your work?
Creative people, especially those who have found their own voice and an individual way of expressing themselves, find that these expressions come from within. That it is their lives; their background, experience and personality that give them the soil from which to create. Of course, technical know-how and being versed in the arts are essential.
There are many photographers whose work I love. Their images confirm my taste and interests, but these are not influences; I recognize them as a community. I understand their approach and admire the result.
I have an affinity with Brassaï and Kertész, with Lartigue and Sander, with Meatyard and Disfarmer and so many more. The list is endless. Then there are others that I have less in common with but admire greatly.
What inspired you to become a photographer?
I studied art initially, and many of my earlier impressions came long before I was aware of photography.
I've lived in Europe as a child and here in New York all my adult life, and have been fortunate to have seen much of the world.
I fell in love with photography when I took a course with Arthur Freed, my teacher at Pratt Institute. He opened my eyes to the layers of meanings that could be found in a photograph. After that introduction, I knew what I wanted to be. Later, André Kertész became my friend and honorary grandfather, and for the twenty years that I had the privilege of knowing him, I learned from him how to be a photographer. He passed on to me his tenderness toward his subjects and his love for the medium.
A lot of your work has centered on capturing the character of New York City. Is that an elusive task? What of the place do you feel you have managed to capture?
I have been photographing in New York City since 1964. It is just where I live and what I know. Having been a staff photographer for the Village Voice for 30 years has given me opportunities to enter worlds different from mine and meet people I never could have imagined. My education comes mostly from these encounters. My association with journalist James Ridgeway led to our collaboration for the book on sex workers, Red Light. With Guy Trebay, we explored the city as a team for his weekly Village Voice column. I also had a photograph of mine published in the paper on top of the contents page, called "Unguided Tour" or other names, for about eight years. These were mostly taken in New York and were my impressions of the city.
Women in Photography International awarded you its Distinguished Photographer Award in 2004. Do you think there is anything implicitly female in how you take photographs or what you choose as subjects?
Being a woman is definitely an aspect of one's personality. I used to be very shy and had to fight to overcome it. On the other hand, most people trusted me and were not threatened by me as much as they would have been by a man. I like to photograph most anything, especially when I am invited and have a sense that I'm welcomed.
Richard Avedon said of you: "She is everything a photographer should be." What, in your own estimation, should a photographer be?
The blurb Avedon so generously gave me to put on my first book, Unguided Tour, is, in its entirety, "Not since Robert Frank's The Americans have I experienced a body of work of such range and power. She makes me laugh and she breaks my heart. She's moral. She is everything a photographer should be."
When you are a photographer, possibly more than in a lot of other arts, who you are really comes through. You can tell a lot about the person by looking at their pictures. I can only add that being human first, one should aspire to know oneself and as a photographer to stay true to oneself.
Can you tell me about how you bring such a unique look to your images? Do you most often use a Holga?
I started out many years ago. I grew up in gray Budapest. After World War II, the buildings were not repainted, and colors in the city came mainly in summer from trees and flowers. Movies were black and white then and so were photographs. In Vienna, I took a course that was offered to refugees on how to hand-color photographs. I enjoyed that.
It was the first time I spent time staring at a picture and changing it. In Pratt, only black and white was taught in 1964. I like it because it is less real-looking, more graphic and emotional. It is more about an essence. Later, I learned to like color, too. Some photographs work better in one or the other. I usually carry both B&W and color film and at least four cameras: a Holga, a panoramic, an SLR and a Hasselblad. Each camera does something different, and a particular shape might be better than another in any given situation.
But what matters is how familiar you are with the equipment, so it is just an extension of your eye and that you are free to follow your intuition about what is there in front of you.
Does being an exile from your home make you yearn more to become a part of a larger human world documented in your images?
Having been an exile, I don't mind going out and discovering things, but not for too long. I long to go home after three weeks to be with the people I love: my husband, son and a few friends, surrounded by familiar objects and my two cats to comfort me.
I like to quietly be and read. I like to print in the darkroom. And as with most photographers, I go back and forth between being social and solitary.
Little harsh, in'it?
Oh that's right...I DID say enjoy yourself.
Go to hell Kombo!
When will you be accepting applicants for the 2014 competition?
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