Master Shots: Sylvia Plachy

by editor

photographer Sylvia Plachy interviewed by Sharon Kitchens

yellow_trucks_north_dakota_2002

Richard Avedon wrote of Sylvia Plachy: “She makes me laugh and she breaks my heart. She is moral. She is everything a photographer should be.”

Plachy is a Hungarian-born, New York-based photographer perhaps best known for capturing the essence of everyday (and not so everyday) life in Manhattan in The Village Voice and The New Yorker. I enjoy her photographs tremendously, as much for the mutual respect she offers her subjects (whether human, animal, or environmental) as well as the curiosity and openness bubbling at the surface in each frame. Whether children at play in Brooklyn or buildings studded with bullet holes in Eastern Europe, Plachy’s images create an honest portrayal of whomever or whatever she is photographing.

Her work has been exhibited worldwide and is in the permanent collections of several museums including The Museum of Modern Art, The Queens Museum, The Brooklyn Museum in New York, The George Eastman House, and The Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. She has shows coming up in Blanco Berlin Galeria in September in Madrid and one in Espaces 54 in Paris in November.

In one of Plachy’s most recent books, Goings on About Town, she explores New York City’s dynamics from the inside out, revealing the vital, and, at times, wacky creativity that energizes the city around the clock. Her other recent release, Out of the Corner of My Eye: de reojo, features works from four decades of her incredible time behind the lens.

Plachy will be teaching the Master Class: “Where the Thread Leads” September 8 – 14, 2013. Participants will learn to edit and sequence pictures for essay, exhibit, and books. The goal is to look at the big picture and leave with a clearer vision. This is her third workshop in Maine in recent years.

Q&A

The photo of the two trucks parked in front of the building with the mural with Canadian Geese flying is one of my favorite images of yours. Like your others, it tells a story in layers with multiple emotions – despair, humor…  Would you tell me about the story behind that image?

Half-lost, driving toward an assignment in North Dakota, I noticed the geese and thought they were real at first. I’m always keenly aware of animals. Then I saw the two identical yellow trucks. They beckoned me.  So, I stopped and thanked the spirits that made me do it.

Each picture contains a story, but it comes through the eyes: it’s a picture. It speaks in it’s own visual language and will be interpreted by each of us as we see life. I like photographs that lead us to imagine a story, a poem, and mostly, if they are good, they make us feel.

To see this image on the roadside with snow and grass blowing in the frigid wind stopped me in my track. Painted wild geese between matching yellow trucks forever taking off in flight toward a happy white cloud on a blank wall; that just doesn’t happen every day.

You were a photographer for the Village Voice for 30 years. Wow, just thinking about all that you experienced and captured. What do you make of newspapers today laying off photo staff and doing more online with video and relying on reporters with smart phones to “snap images” – I’m referring to the Chicago Sun Times here. I’ve seen the images I take, and the ones my friends who are professional photographers take and there is NO comparison. 

I met the world and learned about life from being a staff photographer at The Village Voice especially during the first ten-fifteen years that I was there; it was the place to be. I think, even then, most papers or magazines did not offer as much freedom of expression or allowed unique perspectives as The Voice did in the 70’s and 80’s, which were shining and creative years in the life of New York City. It’s different now in newspaper photography, but there are blogs for newspapers that run interesting essays and in The New York Times I still check for credits to see, “who did that”? They have many good photographers and run insightful photographs. It’s not over and it’s never easy.

0502_9_8_Bobette and Her Parents

I need to track down Tim Whelan (he currently runs the Maine Media Workshops Gallery & Store) and see about getting a copy of The Other Side of War: Women’s Stories of Survival and Hope. I am really interested in the images you took while in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s a place I became connected to recently. What are some of the emotions you go through when preparing for/returning home from an assignment to a war-torn/devastated location and how do you detach yourself from them mentally (or do you)? 

I loved Africa. I was there for Women for Women International and photographed women, survivors of incredible horrors in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I listened to their staggering tales and wandered around in the towns seeing if I could guess, who was good and who was evil. The places I visited did not have much, not many factories and therefore not much garbage. The children’s toys were simple, like in the 19th century: They rolled bicycle tires and kicked about plastic scraps they tied into a ball.

I had thought that inserting myself into such tragic lives was wrong, but found that being a listener while you are photographing is healing. There is a vague hope that in telling their story and offering up their image it will do some good in the world.

For me Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo was more than the beauty of that continent, and more than my seeing elephant foot prints in the mud or encounters with gorillas in the wild. Yes, I was stunned by the intoxicating smells and sounds, and huge arks like Noah’s floating on the lake that ferried people across while on the shore women hunched under huge bundles of rocks on their backs and homeless ragged soldiers carried guns. I was frightened for us all. Yet what moved me most was meeting the women, who though brutally victimized, were not victims, but resilient, nurturing and radiant people.

I am including a picture of Bobette, a beautiful little girl in Rwanda standing between her parents, who both have AIDS. I met her the day before and bought her a lily as a gift. Her mother dressed her in her pink tulle Sunday dress and Bobette loved her lily, it was nothing like any flower that grew in her village.

I remember years ago Paul Caponigro telling me he would wait and wait and wait for an image and then something would happen and he’d know he’d gotten it and that was it. Your images seem spontaneous, but how much of your work just happens, and how much do you have to wait for?  

Nothing just happens. You have to prepare and wait for it. But we don’t know what will happen. It just happens and you recognize it, because it’s what you have been waiting for.