scribbling in the dark - photographer's talks: scribbling in the dark - LOOK3 Plachy 2009

The scribbing in the dark series is a group of personal reflection writings on photography gatherings and slideshows. My notes are scribbled quickly in a tiny notebook, usually in a darkened room, so I ask in advance that you read the words below as my own recollections.  


scribbling in the dark -  

Sylvia Plachy Masters talk at LOOK3 

The 66 year old Hungarian born photographer Sylvia Plachy spoke with ease and humor during her LOOK3 presentation, showing photos taken over a number of years including the 30 she was a staff photographer at The Village Voice. Showing one of her images, that of a tired horse struggling nervously through the forceful water, Sylvia says that that is her self portrait, because she too is overworked and skittish. Author of several books, her work has been published by Aperture and in numerous magazines and she is known for being a very 'human' photographer who records the character of NYC and sources imagery from her personal life as well as from the wide world around her.  

Sylvia began photographing at the age of 21, when she took a course at Pratt with teacher Arthur Freed. She said she never wanted to be a photographer, she had been studying art initially. After the encounter with the enthusiastic teacher, she knew this is what she wanted to do. She approached photographer Kertesz with whom she soon forged a 20 year long friendship. She says that she learned from him how to be a photographer, but specifically one thing he taught her was to never go after images that you already know you can get. Additionally, she remarked on him saying that you had to wait for the picture. Sometimes you can find the right place and light and circumstance, but then you still need to wait for the picture to happen when composition and poetry come together.  

Additionally, she was inspired by the words of mixed media artist Rauschenberg: “I think you’re born an artist or not. I couldn’t have learned it. And I hope I never do because knowing more only encourages your limitations.” Sylvia accounts for some of her in-born artistry because she "sees things no one else sees." She says it is important to her to be able to feel her pictures. The motion that is often present in her work comes when she "can't catch" what she wants to - and she believes that you have to learn to love who you are. Still, she likes accidents in pictures, and puts herself in the position to have accidents happen. 

Asked if she considered herself to be a surrealist, she says that she is neither that nor a 'decisive moment' photographer. Her images are usually made "after the moment" from a perspective that the world is a strange place. She considers herself to be a shy person, and in fact in Czech her surname means shy, but she admits that being a street photographer often means being rude. When working shooting on the street, her method is to take the images she wants, but if someone becomes upset, she stops, saying "okay, okay, I'm not taking anymore" and she moves on. 

One day while Sylvia was staff at the Voice, the editor was standing by her desk and asked the room if anyone would be willing to take on a weekly assignment column. Slyvia said that before he could even finish asking she exclaimed "I'll do it!" She said that as a photographer you have to be ready to take the opportunities that come your way. This was to become the 8 year long series in which a photos a week of hers was published on top of the contents page, usually under the name "Unguided Tour" which made her, in her own words "famous." To this day, many tell her that it was that series that inspired them to be a photographer. Myself, I remember clipping them out many weeks and thinking that she really had something special happening there.  

For Guy Trebay's column in the Voice, she and journalist James Ridgeway collaborated on a piece about sex workers, which came together as the book Red Light. Sylvia said that working on it was very hard for her and somewhat against her nature, partly because she is a day person, but also because the piece wasn't her idea, it came about because one of Ridgeway's interns was also a sex worker and helped them gain access. There have been times when she simply wasn't up for making certain photos, and Ridgeway would push her into action by saying "Arbus would do it." Sylvia herself is very aware how much she hates having her image taken, and has compassion that others may feel the same.  

Sylvia comments that many of her images are taken from behind a person, in fact she had an exhibit of just backs. "My father often walked ahead alone, deep in thought, his state of mind one could only guess at. I, on the other hand, have always liked to linger and watch unseen, to take my pictures without confrontation, to look at backs and imagine what's inside."  

She says she is trying to see and feel thoughts this way, but also, that it was important to be able to use her shyness. She recognizes that "failure is a constant companion" and regardless of one's success, there is a great deal of pressure to constantly produce at a high level. Her way of handling this is "to try not to fail." To Sylvia, failing is not getting the picture that she sees, and so she always keeps her camera set and ready, she jumps on the light, and does her best to catch the miracle that she sees.