Sylvia Plachy’s photography memoir: Self Portrait with Cows Going Home
Part of my desire to visit Budapest was to see where a photographer who is particularly dear to my heart was born. Sylvia Plachy lived in Hungary with her family until they were forced to leave because of the revolution in Europe when she was thirteen years old. Her story resonated with me because of her Eastern European childhood, which reminded me of my father’s childhood, growing up in Poland. She crossed the border with her parents from Hungary to Austria with a small suitcase and teddy bear in 1956. And, I loved imagining her arrival to the United States in 1958 – after two years as refugees in Vienna, carrying only her teddy bear and a larger suitcase.
I found a copy of Sylvia Plachy’s: Self-Portrait with Cows Going Home, during one of my late night Internet searches on photographers. Once I started reading it, I couldn’t put the memoir down. I stayed up all night reading it, and was reminded of my own youth – staying up late to read stories about relatable people in faraway lands from my rollaway bed. I was drawn to it with intensity: the depth, humor and sadness. I stayed up nights for weeks, reading her memoir and studying her photographs. Her black and white images stirred my emotions making me both laugh and cry. I’m always drawn to old school photographers who come from a film background like Melvin Sokolsky, Diane Arbus and Douglas Kirkland. Sylvia’s photography deeply resonates with me – taking me on a journey of quiet, space, solitude and companionship.
The first photo in Self Portrait with Cows is one that her father made of her when she was 13 years old in Vienna. She’s in the snow and there is a building and a tree in the background. It’s a simple photo that begs so many questions. To me, a photo that asks questions, but doesn’t always give the answers is beautiful. This photo does exactly that.
In her memoir, Sylvia reflects on pre and post Communism and I adore how she captures the somber mood of that period with not only her writing but also with her photography of landscapes and people. Eight years after leaving Hungary, she returned with her camera to continue her passion for her homeland and its’ people.
The first two page spread in her book is called Translvanian woods, 2001. I felt the silence of solitude. I wondered about the fog that seemed to create a translucent space all around.
Part of the reason I feel connected to Sylvia Plachy is because, in some ways, she reminds me of my father. He had to start all over again as an immigrant in America, after losing his entire family in Poland to the Holocaust. He survived 8 Nazi forced labor camps and he was the only survivor of his 8 siblings, parents and grandparents. I am drawn to her art because she followed her heart and dream of being a photographer and showcases such humanity in her photography.
I made my way in the pouring rain to Mai Mano House at Nagymezo utca 20 on the Pest side. I was tired and I still haven’t found a cure for jet lag but I didn’t want to wait another moment to see her art. The building has wooden hand rails and stained glass. What a perfect treat for me to see a Sylvia Plachy exhibition for my first time. It is an exceptional building. I was impressed with how the show was organized with the pamphlet so one can walk around, self-guided and particularly, I could gather all the details I craved: the names and the years she made the pictures. It was well thought out and I love the title: When Will It Be Tomorrow? This was a question she used to ask when she was a child.
Here are some of my favorite photos from her show:
I was drawn to the showcases with the photos of her son, actor Adrian Brody. My G-d, what a beautiful child he was and is. My favorite photo is a black and white image from when he is a child wearing a scarf in the snow. She captures so much emotion in the photo and he looks endearingly precious.
I also loved the black and white photograph of her son with a cigarette, and cat and the one with a puppy in his pocket! Oh my goodness it was darling and fun and made me wonder if it was a family pet.
It was a treat to watch the video showing her with her Leica M-6, her Rolleiflex 2.8F, and Hasselblad. I do feel that all great pictures have ghosts in them as she says. We also agree that the type of camera you are drawn to matters because each camera does something different. Self Portrait with Cows has even more meaning to me now that I have been in Budapest.
Plachy has succeeded in finding the meaning, the essence of life, that she sees with her photography. I am grateful to have discovered her. She is a true artist.
Goethe wrote that the hardest thing is to see what is in front of our eyes. Why I love Sylvia Plachy’s art so much is she does this so beautifully. She sees what is in front of her eyes. She was born with an innate talent and was savvy enough to put it to good use. I adore Sylvia Plachy and her art.
One of my favorite Sylvia Plachy epigrams:
“Flower-language,(virág-nyelv in Hungarian), is what speaking euphemistically was called. In totalitarian countries our lack of power made poets or liars of us all.”
Sylvia Plachy’s photographs used by permission.