Sylvia Plachy: 'Falling in love with the truth'

On Dec. 10, 1956, exactly one month after Soviet troops crushed the last hopes of the Hungarian Revolution, 13-year-old Sylvia Plachy lay hidden in a farm cart that was carrying her toward the Austrian border. That night, Plachy and her parents evaded land mines and border guards to escape the Communist regime, making their way first to Vienna, then finally to the United States. The family settled in Queens, New York, where the teenager grew up bound to a sense of exile and a compulsion to return to the country of her birth.

She went on to become one of the most incisive photographers of her generation. In publications including the Village Voice, the New York Times, and the New Yorker, her work has come to define a style of photo-reporting that is as much art as it is journalism. Aiming her lens at the ballet of the street and the drama of everyday events, Ms. Plachy's pictures combine personal narrative with public display, and capture - through the immediacy of her experience - the timelessness of metaphor and dream.

In the course of a career that has garnered her numerous awards, a Guggenheim fellowship, and museum exhibitions in the US and abroad, Plachy has used her cameras to bridge the distance between childhood memory and the rolling changes of history. For more than 40 years, she has traveled repeatedly to Hungary and throughout Eastern Europe. Her visual chronicle of these trips has been published in a book, "Self Portrait With Cows Going Home" (Aperture, 208 pp., $50).

The book, the 61-year-old Plachy writes, "is a farewell to my long attachment to my birthplace."

She designed the volume as a complex, textured memoir of some 120 images, mostly her own photographs, interspersed with family snapshots, keepsakes, even her grandmother's recipe book. She leads with a color panorama of a fog-shrouded Transylvanian wood, and ends with the title photograph, a scene of cows plodding through a village with the photographer playfully framed in a car mirror. Plachy captures her parents taking the oath as American citizens in 1963, and makes a riveting portrait of her son, actor Adrien Brody, on the set of the film "The Pianist" in 2001.

Many of the photographs will be displayed this spring at the Rose Gallery in Los Angeles, and are on view now at New York's Hunter Fox Gallery, where Plachy recently talked about the book and her career. Her pictures "have to do with what memory looks like,'' she explains. "How you remember things. Not so much how they are, but how they get translated."

Plachy comes from a tradition of Hungarian photographers, including Brassai, Robert Capa, and Andre Kertesz. Like those of Kertesz, who was a mentor and grandfather figure to her, Plachy's images are by turns fond, witty, searching, and sad. A simple black-and-white image of frisking lambs evokes the rural life of her ancestors, while puppet-like figures hanging in an art gallery recall the nearly 1,200 protesters executed after the revolution, when Hungary fell back under Soviet control.

"What makes you push the shutter has to do with seeking a kind of perfection, a harmony in the world," Plachy says. "You are instinctively aware it's there, but you've got to be completely alert and quick and so deeply awake that it moves you."

Plachy's images are enhanced by her own text, which ranges from personal narrative to explanatory captions to epigrammatic commentary. "The stars looked on with indifference," she recounts of her family's safe arrival in Austria in 1956. She writes: "There was darkness behind us, and darkness ahead."

Plachy has compared the relationship of words and pictures to the blending of different musical instruments. The relation is not always straightforward. Beside a picture of a keening bear in the Budapest Zoo, she writes: "I heard Misia, the singer, tell an interviewer on the radio that to sing fado well, the sadness has to come from healed experience: 'from the scab and not the wound.' If I had a voice, I would have liked to have been a Piaf, a Billie Holiday, or the Hungarian singer Karady."

Exile remains the defining element of Plachy's consciousness.

"You're always in exile from something,'' she says. "It shaped my whole life. I think it's a good thing. If I hadn't been taken away from that part of the world, who knows what I would have done. But there are worse things that you have to face. Life is full of worse things."

She does not consider her family's harrowing escape one of the worst things that has happened. "That was a major event. But it [only] ended my childhood. Miraculously we survived it, and survived all things afterward. That's why it's nothing."

The work of the artist "is not so much what you say or what you know, it's recognizing what you know. That's what life is about. That's what photography is about. You see something, or you hear someone say something, and you say 'That is a truth.' You know, deep in you," she continues. "That's when you start shooting. That's when you write it down. That's when you start thinking, or that's when you start feeling, because you recognize it. You fall in love with that truth. That's what it is, it's falling in love."

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