Sylvia Plachy: The Captured Moment as Record

by | Jun 15, 2009 | PHOTO

Sylvia Plachy seems to see the captured moment as record, as something to be reexamined and perceived within the context of every surrounding, as insight into the human condition and a lasting documentation of the world as it is variously perceived. It is an instant to be juxtaposed with everything to come before and after. She is not simply perpetuating an individualistic perspective, but using her art to feel out those places that universal understanding intersects the unique and personal. She reveals not only her experience of a situation, but that of her subjects as well.


Sylvia Plachy seems to see the captured moment as record, as something to be reexamined and perceived within the context of every surrounding, as insight into the human condition and a lasting documentation of the world as it is variously perceived. It is an instant to be juxtaposed with everything to come before and after. She is not simply perpetuating an individualistic perspective, but using her art to feel out those places that universal understanding intersects the unique and personal. She reveals not only her experience of a situation, but that of her subjects as well.

Her photographs are honest without being brutal. They feel empathic, genuine, and strangely unassuming, candid but not voyeuristic. She relies heavily on natural light, on good timing and intuition.

I managed to squeeze a few questions in between exits and the cellular static of highways while Plachy was driving from New Orleans to Charlottesville for the Look3 Festival of the Photograph. So while I typed furiously, trying to keep up with her subdued Hungarian accent, we talked a bit about the changes in her industry, and how technology has obviously affected the profession of photography.

“Everybody is an amateur photographer, they don’t just consider themselves to be, they have a camera or cell phone. That is not the major reason photography is changing, it’s changing because of digital, there are less newspapers. They’re not using photography the way it used to be used.”
One of the striking consistencies of Plachy’s work is an absence of formulaic repetition and constancy of aesthetic voice. Her compositions are varied, but there is some mystifying quality of curiosity steadily present, like the piercing of an unknown veil, regardless of motivation or assignment.

“I couldn’t help taking my own kind of pictures, I guess that’s a fortunate thing for me. I have worked on a lot of assignments, but even on assignment I tend to photograph still what draws me to that assignment. And lately I only choose assignments I feel some connection to. It can be any subject matter so long as it’s human, emotional, something… I don’t know what it is, and it’s best not to think about it, because once you become totally aware of what it is you lose the motivation, that’s what keeps me going. I’m not trying to figure myself out artistically, I’m just try to figure myself out as a person, and the artistic is just part of that. I’m trying to figure out what the world is about, what is of worth in life.”

Photobucket
Pigeons on Broadway, 1982

The assignment to photograph someone often necessitates posed photography, which is ostensibly incongruent with the pervasive candor of Plachy’s work. I ask if posed photographs are acceptable, and how she gets around the artificiality of self-conscious representation to a camera.

“Posed photographs are certainly justified, the problem is not with the posing, I like to wait within the pose for something real to emerge. I personally am not interested in setting up things, but if I do because it might make something more formal, I’ll tell someone to sit in a chair, or rearrange something for the composition.”

One such case of Plachy feeling out the genuine moment within the confines of a photo shoot is her portrait of Jean Michelle Basquiat. I ask if it was an assignment or if they had a relationship, which given the lascivious nature of his reputation, translated into me accidentally inquiring as to whether or not they were, uh, romantically involved. To be fair, the image is a sad-eyed and shirtless Basquiat gazing into the camera from in front of one of his paintings, which speaks to both Plachy’s capacity to capture a sense of intimacy, as well as the artist’s insatiable virility. He is effectively made a part of the artwork behind him, the soul in his eyes as savagely drawn as the lines of his paintings.

“No, I did not have a relationship with Basquiat. He was a very handsome man, but we did not have a relationship. Basquiat was an assignment to photograph a portrait of him, I think it might have been for the Voice, and he was in the Village, and it was very fortunate. That’s why I love assignments, because on your own you can’t meet these people, but calling on behalf of the magazine, you have much more of an opportunity. It lasted only 20 minutes. He acted as though I wasn’t there, I like to photograph authentic moments, I like it when people don’t put on a face, you can capture something revelatory about that person, that moment, that experience.”

Sylvia Plachy’s work is not a series of odes to the inspirational, nor is it a gloomy depiction of cruel realities. It resides somewhere in a universally incorporative middle-ground, playing off the contradictory elements that lie within all human experience.

Photobucket
La puta vida, 1987

More of Sylvia’s work can be seen over at www.sylviaplachy.com

Matt Ringer

Matt Ringer

A meat popsicle.




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