at the Museum of Contemporary Photography

Over the years I’ve gotten used to flipping open the first page of the Village Voice to find one of Sylvia Plachy’s weekly images. Intriguing, moving, surreal, lyrical, intense, they always capture a monumental moment with such matter-of-fact poignancy that the image can’t be overlooked. But seeing one photograph, no matter how powerful a statement it makes, can’t measure up to seeing 125 of them at once, 25 in color, as one is now able to do at the Sylvia Plachy retrospective on view at the Museum of Contemporary Photography. This show truly provides a breathless voyage of discovery–you turn from one overwhelming moment to find yet another equally compelling one. Plachy’s works produce a flurry of various feelings; all the while you’re experiencing one emotion, a whole range of others are also raging.

Often she captures a particular moment so private you wonder how and why the subjects allowed her to photograph them. You marvel at the poetry of that personal instant so intense it becomes not only universal but, crossing back on itself, even more poignantly personal. Being at the right place at the right time is one thing, but being allowed entry into that esoteric moment that reveals the innermost self is another. How, for example, did she get the couple in Backseat, obviously entangled in a moment of intense lust, to “pose”? Or allow themselves to be photographed? Perhaps they simply didn’t notice her. Or perhaps the moment of faceless passion–only their bodies are visible against the blur of the backseat window–seemed anonymous enough to be innocuous. Or perhaps they wanted their love immortalized. Gradually a stream of “logical” answers develops–yet however many answers may come to us, they’re never as intense as that initial “ahhh” of astonishment: however did she capture this special moment, at the apex of privacy?

In Plachy’s portrait close-ups, the thoughts and dreams of her subjects seem almost emblazoned on their foreheads. Chow Sao-Lin, Beijing Opera Star offers a face so furrowed with emotion it reads nearly like a script, and seems to have the same cathartic potential. Film star Isabelle Hupert’s mysterious calm in the face of the wind that flattens her hair across one cheek is full of unanswered questions. Miraculously, in this 1986 portrait Plachy has also managed to capture ghostly reflections like flickering film images in the actress’s sunglasses.

Plachy’s subjects elicit such raw emotion that the formal integrity and interest of the photos almost escapes you. Sao-Lin’s gaze to the side parallels the line of the cigarette he smokes. The oversize close-up Mishi and Grandpa–it measures 26 by 39 inches–seems at first a complete invasion of privacy. Yet the title justifies the physical intimacy, and the two giant heads in the swimming pool become almost mythic representations of youth and old age. Plachy also blows up the image in Richiardi’s Magic to almost life-size, seeming to enlarge the moment too in which the magician suspends the woman’s stiff body in the air. The pale glare of spotlights from above transforms the scene into a seance–and the blurred motion of his hands adds to the impression he’s a medium.

The large size of Biker Girl seems intended to accommodate the large crowd of male bikers around a woman exposing her breasts. Almost all of them appear strangely indifferent (though one peers intently around the shoulder of the man in front of him). What’s their story–have they seen too many exposed breasts that day? Are they too macho to pretend interest? Gradually you notice a crowd behind her looking out at the viewer–in the photographer’s direction. Perhaps they’ve granted her license to photograph because they want their moment of immortality. Or are they looking at another biker girl, another off-camera exposure? It’s the hidden drama of the moment that gives Plachy’s photos so much power–our sense that there’s even more going on than the story being “told.”

Consider, too, Courtyard in Nicaragua. At first you wonder what the large tiled room is where a lone child lies naked on the floor, its back to the viewer, as if abandoned in the empty space. Eventually you notice the laundry lines with the child’s clothes hanging high above–perhaps it’s in an enclosed courtyard or a hallway. The child still looks abandoned, but perhaps not quite as desolate, as cast off from daily affection. No less private and mysterious is Illegal Alien–a tongue-in-check condemnation of the attitude that an immigrant, her head wrapped in a gauzy scarf, can be more alien than the cartoon sci-fi space warrior we see on the TV next to her, his head encased in armor. Both helmet and scarf are meant to protect, but neither keeps out the viewer’s stare. Who is more the alien in the end–the viewed or the viewer, subject or voyeur, the alien or you?

Making the surreal familiar–a moment of surprise recognizable–is another highlight of this exhibit. Obvious moments of absurdity make us all snort out a chuckle. Even the title to Pope John Paul II in the Bronx is absurd, yet the realistic painting of him taped to a window underneath a neon “BUD” sign is funnier, his smiling face like an endorsement. In the Belly of the Apostles, taken during a village pageant in Sicily, exposes the inner “workings”–two men–of two large figures of the Apostles. The men hold hands conspiratorially, in comradeship. Posing for Plachy exposes the trick behind the magic, yet mysteries remain.

Quadruplets on Broadway exposes differences amid apparent similarities. This is really a portrait of twins each holding a doll almost as large as they are. All four behind the bar of their carriage look as if they’re imprisoned; the dolls’ bald heads are like a revelation of the bald baby heads underneath their bonnets. The doll on the left gazes upward like the open-eyed (albeit sleepy) baby who holds her; the doll on the right faces the other way, looking downward as the baby does who holds her, though that baby’s eyes are closed. Other images are equally funny but seem almost lyrically “choreographed.” A simply beautiful moment of movement can have the staged quality of dance: the running girl in Agi or the two “flying” bikers in Wild Bike or Tom Waits pretending to be a toreador, posed as gracefully as a dancer (the characteristic deep, rasping voice seems in complete contrast).

But perhaps the most moving image is the one chosen for the cards announcing the show. Visitor is like a calling card, like Flaubert saying flatly “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” A monkey peers at us through a half-open car window; the eye against the pane seems closed, the other wide open. The observer is observed, the rule of nature (the trees outside the window) opposed to the rule of man (the car interior). Is the monkey staring into an empty future? A hollow one? Or is this just idle curiosity? Plachy forces us to look with new eyes, as the monkey does, and reassess the familiar. She takes the mechanics of one moment and makes it the ultimate moment, showing us openly how things work. With an outsider’s intensity, she makes the moment precious by making it visionary.

Plachy was once an immigrant herself, smuggled as an adolescent out of Hungary in the bottom of a farm cart, covered with corn. Leaving in the wake of the Hungarian revolution of 1956, she had only one day, as she writes in her introduction to the catalogue, “to say good-bye and to fill up with all that I loved in my first thirteen years. I visited everyone I could and looked around me with the intensity of the dying.” The power of that intensity continues to pulse through all her photographs–as if each moment were a treasure she must carry away with her or lose forever. If you document the moment, you won’t lose it. Plachy documents and documents–with the poetic intimacy of her mentor Andre Kertesz, with the precise, surreal absurdity of Diane Arbus, with the perfectly measured, spontaneous moments of Rudy Burckhardt. But though she’s a working journalist, her work takes her beyond the scope of the everyday into the world of the seer, like the monkey peering into the great unknown of the car.