Still waiting: Plachy opens the shutter and dances

Sylvia Plachy, "Fate," © Sylvia Plachy.
Sylvia Plachy, "Fate." © Sylvia Plachy.

The three photographers honored at this year’s Look3, Festival of the Photograph ran the gamut– not only in their aesthetic approach to picture making, but also in their on-stage appearances at the Paramount. Gilles Peress obstinately refused to discuss his work, digging in his heels and exasperating his patient interviewer. Martin Parr, on the other hand, kept the audience in stitches with his prepared remarks that combined photographic insights with self-deprecating humor.

Meanwhile, Sylvia Plachy, a former Village Voice photographer who came to the U.S. as a Hungarian refugee in her teens, offered a stream-of-consciousness commentary on her images, whipping off wry one-liners that revealed a charming gallows humor. When a headshot of a wild-eyed horse struggling midstream flashed onscreen, Plachy deadpanned, “That’s my true self-portrait– very skittish and overworked.” She also joked, “I’m usually taking pictures after the decisive moment,” But Plachy ultimately shared a lesson learned from her longtime friend and fellow Hungarian photographer, Andre Kertesz: “A picture is something that happens, and you have to wait for it.”

This dictum is reinforced in the title of her current McGuffey Art Center exhibition, “Waiting,” a wide-ranging compendium of photographs culled from throughout Plachy’s career. Like her Paramount presentation, in which she created diptychs and triptychs of images involving unrelated subjects that nevertheless shared a common element (a gesture, detail, or shape), the arrangement of her McGuffey show is startlingly unconventional.

Forty-two framed photographs, comprising both black-and-white and color images of varying sizes, either hang salon-style or lean against the wall on a long shelf. In addition, numerous unmatted prints cover two large panels, creating the impression of oversized bulletin boards. The overall sensation is of standing in the artist’s personal studio, where idiosyncratic preferences override staid rules of gallery display.

But underlying the seeming randomness of image placement is a flow that recalls Plachy’s comment on her Paramount images: “It’s about how they create a dance together.” Thus, offbeat portraits of celebrities–Tom Waits, Rainer Fassbinder, Plachy’s son Adrien Brody–hang alongside images of watchful dogs flanking a door in Budapest, the tattered swimsuit of a lifeguard, and an abandoned garage in Love Canal. Plachy’s images capture moments between moments, instances made noteworthy by Plachy’s keen eye for composition and irony.

Rhythmic and engaging, the photographs in “Waiting” vary widely in subject matter, but all reflect Plachy’s realization that the  “decisive moment” is frequently one that goes unnoticed by the impatient.

Sylvia Plachy’s exhibition, “Waiting,” is on view at the McGuffey Art Center through June 28 as part of Look3, Festival of the Photograph. 201 Second St. NW. 295-7973.