SYLVIA PLACHY: THE HUNGARIAN CONNECTION
Sylvia Plachy was born in Budapest and fled as a refugee at age thirteen to Austria after the Hungarian revolution in 1956 before moving to the US two years later. Her photo essays and portraits have appeared in The New York Times, New Yorker, and Fortune, and she was staff photographer at the Village Voice. She has had six books of her work published and is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Houston Museum of Fine Arts, and other institutions. Her compatriot, the legendary photographer André Kertész, was a friend and mentor and Plachy is often called his artistic heir for her poetic street photography.
This exhibition is part of a suite of four exhibitions collectively entitled Art of Hungary, which is made possible by the Museum’s Exhibition Leadership Fund with major support generously provided by the Estate of Ruth Feigl, Jody H. & Martin Grass, Dalia & Duane Stiller, Lisette Model Foundation, Nancy G. Brinker, Quinnipiac University’s Central European Institute, the Hungary Initiatives Foundation, and the Museum’s Friends Auxiliary.
Ms. Plachy was kind enough to speak with SxSE about her life of photography and her ongoing relationship with Hungary, the land where she was born.
Nancy McCrary: Ms. Plachy, thank you for taking the time to share with us some of the images currently on exhibit at the Boca Raton Museum, and a bit about your talk there on December 11th.
I”d like to start by giving our readers an insight into your timeline. In 1956, when you were 13 years old, your family fled the Hungarian Revolution, eventually landing in New York. In 1964, as a budding 21 year-old photographer and protégé of André Kertész, you began a new relationship with Hungary using your camera as witness. Tell us about the early days of going back home and how you reconciled the Hungary you had left with the one you found upon returning in the 1960’s.
Sylvia Plachy: This year is the 60th Anniversary of the 1956 Revolution. The day I will give my talk at the Museum, is the day after the 60th anniversary of our leaving Hungary. At dawn on December 10th after a night of stumbling through frozen ground, worrying about mines, and hiding from flares we arrived in Austria. There was a finality to getting across the Iron Curtain: it separated everything that went before and came after.
For years I couldn’t go back. Anyone who left Hungary was considered a traitor. Finally, after 8 years and after becoming an American citizen, I could go for a visit. Those eight years had hardly made a dent in the look and feel of the country – only that things were more gray, and shabby, and everyone got a little bit older. I loved the coal fumes, the cheap cigarette smoke, and also the good smells – the scent of acacias and lilacs. The volume of all the smells was turned up high. I arrived the week when Marika, my friend from seventh grade, got married. And I photographed my grandmother in my former room where she then lived, in the apartment that I grew up in .
NM: How did your interest in photography begin? Do you believe you would have found the camera whether you were in New York, Budapest, or anywhere else?
SP: I was attending Pratt Institute and took an elective photography course with Arthur Freed and that was it. I knew what I wanted to do. I had this magic box that was a small quiet companion, which made delicate lasting conversions of elusive events of my life. I understood that with a camera I could take not just some tiny trinkets, but an equivalent, a ghost or mood of things wherever I went.
I don’t know, so much of life is chance, but I don’t think I would have been a photographer in Hungary. I wouldn’t have had the courage or the opportunity to override the pressures to make pragmatic choices if my parents hadn’t brought me to the United States.
NM: You have described photographs as ‘… imprints or ghosts of some previous existence‘. Tell us more about that.
SP: I search to photograph people and places that carry some memory of another event and lead me, like stepping stones, back and forth in time and space, between dreams and reality. I look for visceral connections, a chemistry of sorts, an essence or spark, the spirit of the thing.
NM: Your books have chronicled your returns to Hungary. Will there be a new book soon?
SP: Maybe two or three, but they are still just swirling in my head.
NM: For those of us joining you for the artist’s talk in Boca Raton on December 11, would you give us a glimpse of what you’ll be sharing?
SP: The talk will be partially about The Hungarian Connection, but the projection will include images from all other walks of my life. Though they come from disparate situations owning another reality, they still, like bric-a-brac in my house, can rhyme with each other. The title of the presentation is Dancing with Ghosts.
NM: In the 50 years during which you have returned to your home in Hungary on numerous occasions, what has changed the most? What do you miss the most?
SP: Nothing is the same. Change is everywhere, and faster than ever. Loosing my birthplace and my childhood has left me with interesting scabs, but that time has passed. There have been, and will be, many other losses before it’s over, and my husband Elliot is right when he says, “There is nothing you can do about it, why worry?”
Sylvia Plachy has been photographing since 1964, her Junior year at Pratt Institute. She has been published in many books and magazines and was staff photographer and photo editor at The Village Voice for a total of thirty years. She is a regular contributor to the New Yorker Magazine. She teaches workshops about editing your own photographs for books and shows. And she has a column in Aperture Magazine called, Wandering. She’s juried a W. Eugene Smith competition and one at Slow Exposures. She’s a John Simon Guggenheim fellow and has won The Dr. Erich Solomon Price for lifetime achievement in photo journalism . Her recent books are: Self Portrait with Cows Going Home, Signs & Relics and De Reojo/Out of the Corner of My Eye. She is in a two person exhibit, Widely Different, of panoramic images at the South Street Seaport Museum, NYC. She’s had had many exhibits all over the world and her photographs are in numerous collections including in the MOMA of New York City.