Sylvia Plachy spent thirty years as a photographer for the iconic free New York newspaper The Village Voice. And for eight of those years she was allowed to wander the streets of New York, shooting whatever caught her eye for “Sylvia Plachy’s Unguided Tour.” For anyone with a few spare moments, her photographs were a weekly education in street photography and a quick peek into some less explored corners of the city.
I grew up looking at your “Unguided Tour” in the Village Voice every week. What was your shooting schedule like? I am assuming you are fairly prolific?
No, it all depends… I was just fortunate to have an outlet for 30 years, which really helps. I wasn’t always doing the “Unguided Tour”, though. For a period, I did a series called “Cruising” where I would go out and take pictures from my car. There are still no laws against taking pictures from your car – you can’t text or talk on your phone, but you can take pictures!
Do you set out to photograph with a destination in mind or do you tend to wander around and shoot whatever you encounter?
“Unguided Tour” really meant that you could have an experience anywhere – it didn’t necessarily have to be on the street. But there were certain things where I’d turn them into a project, like traveling with an ambulance or shooting square format portraits where I’d ask people what their profession was, without learning their name or anything else.
Would these series just develop naturally?
You find photographs in so many different ways – from chance encounters, from looking at your negatives, from the way the light hits your pillow in your home, from a sound or a movement that makes you look… It’s whatever draws you or makes you feel something. Then, the picture is only good if it has a life of its own. Every photo is almost a fiction or a dream. If it’s really good, it’s another form of life.
Do you still shoot as frequently as you did when you had a weekly deadline?
No, unfortunately. But it’s not just the deadline, it’s having a place to show. It was like being a performer and each week was a new test.
Do you have a sense of your audience?
Well, I have a sense that people will be looking at the pictures. But these days something else happens that I don’t like. When I use a digital camera, people want to see what I’m taking. I prefer to not even know it myself until later, so it remains a mystery and a hope. You have to have faith that it will become something wonderful.
Do your pictures ever surprise you?
Photography is a visual language. Not everybody speaks or understands it. When you take a picture, you develop it, you stare at it, you spend time printing it different ways…. It’s not like an Instagram, which is immediate. You live with it before you print up the final version. But once it’s out there, everyone who sees it bring their own references and associations to it.
How did you end up with this big marquee space in the paper each week?
It just happened one day – the editor walked by the art department and asked if someone could fill the space above the table of contents with an image each week. I was there and said I could. You just have to be in the right place at the right time. That applies to taking a photo, that applies to life, that applies to love… All of it. You have to jump.