Sylvia Plachy describes the photographer's art of imposing on her subjects

Sylvia Plachy describes the photographer's art of imposing on her subjects

Journalistically speaking, I came of age with the Village Voice. From that paper I came up with some notion of  how I wanted to do my life’s work. And that’s something, maybe the only thing, that Sylvia Plachy and I have in common. Plachy, who is a featured artist at this year’s Festival of the Photograph, shot pictures for the Voice for close to 30 years, starting in the late 1970s. Just as the Voice, in its heyday, was a hybrid of the personal, political, social and comical all wrapped up in what might be called the “new journalism,” so does Plachy make pictures that criss-cross many genres and points of view.

“Mermaid on Coney Island, 1995” by Sylvia Plachy at McGuffey Art Center

Yet always, no matter what the subject—a singing zoo bear, a sex worker with her hand far up some guy’s nether regions, an Oscar-winning actor who happens to be her son on a movie set—Plachy expresses an awkward intimacy through her lens. It’s the gaze of a shy but profoundly curious person; fittingly, in Czech, her surname means “shy.” When I met with Plachy a couple of months ago as she was mapping out her LOOK3 show in a small studio in the McGuffey Art Center on a glorious Saturday morning, she credited the Voice, in the first 10 years of her tenure there, with helping her develop her eye. “They were giving freedom to the writers, to the photographers and everybody, to interpret the world in their own way. And that doesn’t happen that many places,” she said.

Plachy emigrated to this country from Communist Hungary after several years in Austria and at the age of 20 she became an American citizen. She made her first pictures during that refugee period; her formal studies include a degree from the Pratt Institute. Among her books: Signs & Relics, Self Portrait with Cows Going Home, and Red Light: Inside the Sex Industry.

I intended, in the McGuffey interview, to engage Plachy (pronounced Plah-hee) in discussion of her process. How does an artist get work done? How does she keep her craft spontaneous yet masterful? She was witty, cautious, open, particular—in short, Plachy the conversationalist is much like Plachy the photographer.

Plachy’s show, “Waiting,” is on display through June 28 at McGuffey. The reception for the show, on June 11 at 9pm, follows a stage interview with her, to be conducted by Aperture Magazine’s Melissa Harris, at 7pm on June 11 at The Paramount Theater.

Here’s an edited transcript of my interview with Sylvia Plachy.—Cathy Harding


Cathy Harding: I’ve heard photographers use this phrase. So let’s start by asking you what it actually means to “make a picture” compared to, say, taking a picture.


Sylvia Plachy:
Aha. Who’s making it and who’s taking it? (Laughter)

“Adrien Brody as the character Richie Rude, 1998” by Sylvia Plachy at McGuffey Art Center

I don’t know the difference between making and taking a picture. I think you have to take it, and then you have to make it, and then you have to do other things with it, and then you create a picture out of the experience, then, that you’re in. But to be a photographer, it means to be able to be rude, to impose on people, and kind of stick your nose into other people’s business, and to do that, you have to be in a good position mentally. To go out there and allow yourself to be part of the world. But it’s a wonderful experience, because it means to step inside the circle of another.

It’s interesting to hear you talk about the rudeness and the imposingness. But I’m thinking right now of some of the pictures that don’t, in fact, include people. For instance, “Marika’s Apartment”—the snowflakes coming down on the TV, with the light coming through the curtains and the plant. There’s so much texture, almost gaiety and a little bit of melancholy in the picture. It strikes me that you’d have to be incredibly patient to wait for that.

Right. So that’s what this show is about. (Laughter) About how much photography is about waiting, and how much our lives are about waiting for the moment, or anything. You have to wait and wait and wait until something happens. And it is also, in a way, pushing yourself into the present, or pushing yourself into the texture of the room that you’re in, to understand the ghosts that speak to you from within. And that’s what I’m looking for.

How does your life as a refugee continue to inform what you see, and how you do your work?

Well, having been a refugee has informed who I am, and who you are as a photographer is very much in the photographs, and in how you work. It’s probably more so than in any other art form. So being a refugee has made me—I’ve always been shy—but it has made me even more shy, I guess. And made me deaf and dumb, in a way, because I couldn’t speak or understand what people were saying around me. And it made me aware how language matters, and that being a visual person is also speaking another language. Because I began to try to understand things like a deaf person would, without understanding what people were saying around me. So I really looked at everything. I remember knowing that this was my last day of my life, and I walked all over the streets, and I touched everything, and I looked at everything, and I went to visit my favorite friends, my great-aunt and my grandmother. Those were the first photographs. I don’t have them anywhere except in my head.

You had a long, established run with the Village Voice and now many newspapers are coming to a crashing halt. We know that people have changed the way they read. What about the way they perceive images?

Images are not good either. I think everything is being distilled into a sound bite or a photo bite or a picture bite, whatever those are. Even though we have access to all this information and everything, it’s too superficial. It’s too quick. It’s too much about catching it without thinking about it, without feeling it, without anything. It feels like boring information and I’m not interested in it.

“Torch Song, Budapest Zoo, 1993” by Sylvia Plachy at McGuffey Art Center

Your pictures have a very empathic quality, but you’re also the outsider to that experience. Some of the things you’ve taken pictures of seem like they’d be very traumatic to be part of. The Red Light book comes to mind.

Well, that’s the one I’m outside of. I think the other books I’m more inside. And that project was James Ridgeway’s idea. He had an intern who was into sex industries, so she became our guide into that world. We entered this world that I would not have dared to go in alone, without a Dante leading me. It was, in a way, a shocking experience. I tried to avoid the usual pictures of sex workers, which is too much in the direction of being titillating. I tried to be just as straightforward and get as close as I could. But I felt very saddened and it was a very interesting experience, because I discovered these people were like you and me after all, except with a little more guts, and craziness to take risks that I would never do.

It seems the people are having a grim experience.

You come from a small town, you come from maybe a family that you were abused in, and you have no other ideas of how to make an interesting life for yourself other than in working at a boring job. I think that’s a major sadness of the world—that we are limited in understanding what we could be, and we don’t see it. So they think that that is going to be fun. They jump into this world, and they get deeper and deeper and deeper, and they’re on drugs, a lot of them, and it’s a downhill—it’s not a pretty picture. I felt depressed for years after that.

But maybe I’ve been depressed all my life. If you really look at everything in the world, it makes you very sad.

Have you ever made a photo that really surprised you?

I am in favor of accidents when you take pictures, and I put myself in a position to have accidents happen. I think it’s always a surprise when it’s a great picture—when it’s a picture that you would want to keep forever. That picture is always a surprise, because it’s very easy to take a regular, nice picture, but to have a picture that you can look at, and still like, and find joy in it week after week, or you could stick it on your wall, that’s a surprise. It’s grace, from heaven.

As you say that, the picture that springs to my mind is that bear.

The bear I saw. The bear was crying, and singing…

It really came out of nowhere as I was going through the Self Portrait book.

Well, that was a surprise for you, but I saw it! (Laughter)

What do you think is a commonly misunderstood thing about photography?

I think most people think they can take a good picture. And those people can’t. To be a photographer, you have to devote your whole life to it. And that’s a whole other thing. And it might be that you have nothing on your rolls that you like for the next, I don’t know, weeks and weeks and weeks on end. I’m saying: Anybody can get a good picture, especially with digital and everything else, but what it takes to be a photographer—you have to put yourself into it.

Well, what is your typical day like?

I don’t have a typical day. I don’t.

What’s your favorite day like?

(Laughter) My favorite day is kind of like today. It’s a very nice day, I woke up early, I walked out and there was all these lovely people in a fruit market, in the Saturday market you have here, and the sun was shining, and I couldn’t have my breakfast, so I thought, “Oh, they weren’t ready,” so I went out for a walk, and it was wonderful. So my favorite day is actually to feel the day. And I had an hour and a half to go feel the day, and I was in a mood to talk to them, and take pictures. Because it really takes an effort, and there are many times that I’m not in the mood to talk to you or anybody else. I was happy to talk to them, and then I came here and I’m working on my other pictures.

Do you shoot pictures every day?

I don’t have a rule. I have my cameras with me, but I don’t take pictures every day.