Photography and the Personal

A short essay on Hungarian-American photographer Sylvia Plachy and her photography in Self portrait with Cows Going Home. For the module Photo Imaging I.

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Photos are like linguistic utterances – no two are the same. You and I could stand side by side with the same equipment, the same subject, but we will never get the same photo. What separates the two is the person behind it.

So while the action is the same, the act is unique, different. And the act is influenced greatly by the complexities and understandings you bring to it.

Also consider the mechanics of the act itself. With a single-lens reflex camera, the split-second you take the photo, you lose vision of what’s in front of you. Instead of receiving it in your retina, the image is now imprinted on the film. Technically the photo contains what is missing in your mind. It is strange to think that the memories that resurge from a photo you see, is in fact not a visual memory of that very moment, but from the moments surrounding it.

Beyond the present act, a photo that has been taken, developed and kept becomes a slice of time and space, storing the past conveniently on piece of paper. It is no wonder that wedding photos, archival images and family albums are among the intuitive ways people use photography.

So photography is inextricably tied to memory. And memories are particular, personal things; what we carry around in our heads.

It is in this vein that we examine Sylvia Plachy’s work in Self portrait with Cows Going Home (Plachy, 2004).

In Self portrait with Cows Going Home, Sylvia Plachy traces her roots with 40 years of her photography on several trips to Eastern Europe. It is at once a very personal glance at her life and a glance at the wider context of Eastern European history, through the lens of her Hungarian heritage.

One sojourn was particularly significant, when she went to Poland to visit her son (Adrien Brody) on the set of The Pianist. When he was dressed up in the style of that period, Adrien reminded her of her father. She said,

He was an apparition of my father as a young man … How thrilling and disturbing when your son can conjure up ghosts.

P.62, Self portrait with Cows Going Home (Plachy, 2004)

There’s a strange interplay of memories in this one photo. On the first level, it is the use of an actor with European Jewish heritage in the process of filmmaking to recapture the past. On a second level, it is the way Sylvia’s own photo becomes a permanent record of the echo of her memory, which she had of her father because of Adrien in this scene.

Memories – It’s all tied up; the photos she takes of the present, the photos she presents from the past, and even the photos she takes of old photos on the wall (framed thus it becomes evidence of her act of pilgrimage). The theme of memory makes sense with the non-chronological structure of the book, because her recall is not a narrative retelling but a search of the jigsaw parts that make her.

Some photos shown are not literal records, but are photos taken in a more present time that evoke an earlier memory. One instance of this is on page 72; a photo of two girls interacting at a wall reminds her of a childhood memory, a tiff she had with her friend Lulu about their fathers. She recalls the memory of her father, a humorous, talented man whose future was curtailed by his circumstances. In this case, the others in her photographs become surrogates for her own memory.

P.72, Self portrait with Cows Going Home (Plachy, 2004)

In the opening of her book, she details lucidly her memory of crossing the border and migrating to America because of the Hungarian revolution. Growing up in New York from the age of thirteen, her childhood memories must have remained a curiosity to her.

It is fortunate that her interest in photography got her in touch with André Kertész, a fellow Hungarian photographer, who became her mentor and friend. He called her “snot nose”, affectionately. As photography became her medium of exploration – as seen in her visions of New York regularly published in Village Voice’s Unguided Tour and The New Yorker’s Goings On About Town – it became a way to explore her personal landscape as well.

She first managed to return to Europe when she was 21. It was to be the first of many with her camera.

On page 100 she writes,

At sundown in small villages all over Eastern Europe
cows, their udders full, return home from the meadows.
Their hoofs clip-clop on the pavement like voluminous women in heels.
When they find the house they belong to, they moo.

(Plachy, 2004)

This is Sylvia’s own act of mooing.

Her photography in Self portrait brings and captures the parts of herself that identify distinctively as Eastern European; as an emigrant to America; as a mother; and as someone who inquires actively about what it all means.

But mostly, they capture Sylvia herself.


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