I hate to do this.
I looked at Sylvia Plachy’s photographs in Goings On About Town: Photographs for The New Yorker and I was bored. I knew I had to write a bad review and I didn’t want to do it. But I’ve blown it off long enough.
It helps me rationalize what I’m about to do by reminding myself that I’m the idiot that didn’t like London Calling when it first came out - in fact, I scratched it and tried to return it.
For me, Sylvia Plachy is a little like The Only Band That Matters.
The Clash’s first two albums were kick-butt, “we’re a garage band/we come from garage land” punk rock.
Plachy’s first book, Unguided Tour, published by Aperture, won the International Center for Photography Infinity Award for Best Publication of 1990. Her second book, Red Light - Inside The Sex Industry, published in 1996 by Powerhouse Books, is kick-butt too.
But her latest effort, maybe a little like Combat Rock, doesn’t live up to her earlier work.
I first heard her name come from the hallowed mouth of my Pulitzer Prize-winning photography teacher. I immediately bought Red Light. That is an amazing book. Obviously the subject matter is scintillating, but Sylvia’s time and effort are apparent too. She spent more than three years working on it.
Last year, I bought her first book, Unguided Tour. Sylvia had an uncaptioned, weekly photo column with the Village Voice called Unguided Tour. I had hoped the book with the same name as the column would have been composed of photographs from said column, but no. As it turns out, a lot of the stronger images are from her personal body of work.
Goings On is comprised of 81 color and black-and-white images which were shot in a little over a year for The New Yorker. It’s a simple matter of time spent. Unguided Tour was comprised of images from 1963 through 1989 and Red Light was a three-year documentary project.
Goings On looks like a photographer working to fill space instead of a photographer making photographs for the love of it. Yes, of course there are some amazing images: the 10th photograph in the book is of Bambi the Mermaid, Coney Island, Brooklyn; both the Floating Screening photo on page 42 and the Burlesque photo on page 43 are great. But in between is filler.
Plachy is an amazing photographer. She’s won a Guggenheim, has exhibited at the Whitney Museum and her work has appeared in many of the world’s top magazines. This book just goes to show how hard it is to make great photographs on a regular basis. (I should know. I too have a weekly photo column. I have not, however, won a Guggenheim.) – Daniel Kramer
Goings On About Town: Photographs For The New Yorker, by Sylvia Plachy, Aperture, $29.95.