Sylvia Plachy is Icon Number 17


Courtesy Photo

A sample of photographer Sylvia Plachy’s work. Plachy will tell the stories of her photographs at the Austin Center for Photography’s Icons of Photography Speaker Series on Thursday at the Blanton Museum of Art. 

Olivia Arena

Sylvia Plachy never intended to become a photographer. Although she attended the Pratt Institute School of Art & Design, Plachy never considered photography as a viable media. At the time, no one really considered pursuing photography as a creative career. Years later, Plachy has devoted her life to the craft. 

“Eventually, I decided that that’s how I liked to live, because photography is not just a way to do creative work, but also a way to live — to go out of your room, a way to have a connection and experiences that will sometimes be lasting experiences,“ Plachy said. 

Plachy will tell her story this weekend at the Icons of Photography Speaker Series presented by the Austin Center for Photography. The series strives to increase interaction between iconic photographers and Austin art aficionados. In the past four years the lectures have helped bring prolific photographers to the Blanton Museum of Art

“These are real photographers that do different things, and there is great diversity amongst them,” Aymn Kassam, Vice President of the Texas Photography Club and ACP volunteer, said. “It’s a good way to get exposed to different styles. You can migrate and study different people or different photography styles, but to go to a lecture is the best experience.” 

The speakers range in discipline and concentration, but each have made critical contributions to the field of photography. 

“They can be documentarians, photojournalists, fine artists, educators, experimenters, visionaries and all of the above,” Millan said. “They are also all successful photographers who have devoted their lives to the medium. Sylvia is both the same and different in her own special way.” 

Devoid of distracting enhancements or costumed muses, Plachy’s photographs capture the adventure and humor in little moments often taken for granted. Particularly striking are her black and white portrayals of the everyday passersby: children playing a park, two men touring Stonehenge, an intimate gathering of friends.  

“Most of the time I like disappear to find something that speaks to me, and find some brilliant, exciting wonderful image — maybe not brilliant but that has some weight when it speaks,” Plachy said. “I like to create a picture or pull a picture out of the world that is alive. That has a life of its own. It’s a truth for that second; it’s a visual truth and it’s a truth about something.”

Plachy worked for numerous publications including the Village Voice, the popular New York alternative newsweekly. Working for the Village Voice for nearly 30 years allowed Plachy the freedom to experience the eccentric city. Unrestricted, she sought stories and images that spoke to her. 

“I was kind of spoiled,” Plachy said. “Working for them, I didn’t have to tailor anything. I went out, covered what was there, and they wanted me to come back with my perception of what is there. What happens now when I look back, I find that on my contact sheets, many pictures there that had nothing to do with the story were somehow left behind. They are hidden and waiting to be discovered again.”

Plachy has photographed numerous subjects, from documentary photos of the sex industry to portraits of her son, actor Adrien Brody. 

“Richard Avedon wrote of Sylvia: ‘She makes me laugh and she breaks my heart. She is moral. She is everything a photographer should be.’ Her pictures are magical, descriptive and heartfelt,” said Kathryn Millan, the ACP event manager. “She is one of those rare visionaries who can tell a story without captions. She is able to make artful documents of the world around her.”

In an ever changing and fleeting world, she continues to find commonality with the simple human experiences.

“I’m drawn to subjects that feel like a cousin to me,” Plachy said. “Modern life is getting harder to recognize. It’s becoming another world, but within it you can still find humanity and vestiges of the past, and I’m interested in life and death and things like that and that’s still there.”