Village Voice photographer Sylvia Plachy reflects on 30 years of New York City history in Brooklyn Public Library exhibition

Sylvia Plachy photographed music composer Tom Waits in 1985
Longtime Village Voice photographer Sylvia Plachy looks back on 30 years of history in “It happened in New York: Photos by Sylvia Plachy.”
Photo courtesy of Sylvia Plachy/Brooklyn Public Library

What happened in New York between 1974 and 2004? What made it the city that it is today? Will history books ever say?

That’s what photojournalist Sylvia Plachy hopes to answer in a new retrospective exhibition called “It Happened in New York,” now on view at the Brooklyn Public Library’s central branch.

Plachy was a staff photographer for the Village Voice, where she penned her “Unguided Tour” column. For three decades, she collected rare stories from the streets of New York City.

“She is an incredible documentarian,” said the exhibit’s curator Cora Fisher. “Her work shows the life of the city, what Manhattan once was, the cultural capital of the work.”

On Feb. 1 at 6 p.m., Plachy will drop by the library to guide attendees through her work — which has appeared in far more than the Greenwich Village paper.

Her photos have also appeared in publications like The New York Times, New York Magazine and The New Yorker, and she has had solo shows in New York City’s Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum, with similar showcases in Budapest, Paris, Rome, Berlin, Tokyo, Manchester and more. 

“It happened in New York” is made up of nearly 40 photos and clippings from the Village Voice as well as the six books Plachy has published.

“She is at the height of her everything,” Fisher told Brooklyn Paper. “All of the images are super relevant. She’s photographed homelessness, immigration issues, poverty, richness and culture.”

Many of the faces in the photographs will not go unrecognized.

Picture by Sylvia Plachy of a crowd running down the street in Crown Heights in riots of 1991.
Plachy photographed dozens of important events over the years, including the 1991 riots in Crown Heights. Photo courtesy of Sylvia Plachy/Brooklyn Public Library

“There is a portrait of Donald Trump causing a scene,” the curator said. “It was before his political life, when he was known as a real state mogul. He was surrounded by people asking for his autograph and Sylvia says that as he stopped, he told them he wouldn’t sign on paper. He said, ‘Show me your money,’ and she photographed him signing bills. She used to be quiet in the shadows catching spectacular people in anti-spectacular situations.”

Some of Plachy’s subjects, she managed to get closer to. One of her photos shows singer and composer Tom Waits posing for her camera. Waits was a strong source of inspiration for actor Heath Ledger’s performance of the Joker in the 2008 Batman film “The Dark Knight.”

“She became good friends with Tom,” said the curator. “She would meet intellectuals and weirdos and all kinds of characters.”

Other pieces of the exhibit portray Steve Martin, Margaret Atwood and Fisher’s favorite, Don King — “easily recognizable by his iconic afro,” she said — photographed from behind, lit by other photographers in front of him.

“There is something about her quietness and her piercing eye that would get her access,” she said. 

The photographer’s collection also includes street photography from the Bronx to Coney Island and even a picture taken at a historical time not far from the library itself. Plachy photographed the riots of 1991 in Crown Heights, a clash between the Orthodox jewish community, the Afro-Caribbean community and the police following the death of 17-year-old Gavin Cato. 

“She captured a crisis moment when the riots [between Jewish and Caribbean neighbors in Crown Heights in 1991] broke out,” said Fisher. “While she was there and chaos erupted and a Caribbean woman let her come inside a hair salon keeping her safe within the community. Her pictures show shared humanness. She is a master of measuring the color of a situation, she is sensitive to overtones.”

The curator worked side by side with the artist in the making of this show. 

“I became close with Sylvia and she led the way,” said Fisher.”The images speak loudly and speak to each other without canceling each other, telling a story. There is a flow from one to another and she helped me train my eye. With these photos, it’s not intuitive.”

Fisher hopes Plachy’s work highlights the importance of keeping records of society. 

“We can all document our history, ” she said. “Even within a public record, there is the nuance of the quality of life. We have to train our eyes to experience our own life. Records help to preserve public spaces and we need to fight for the places we want to keep.”

“It Happened in New York” opened on Jan. 16 on the heels of BPL’s successful Book of HOV exhibit exploring the life and legacy of rapper Jay Z. Fisher is hoping to have Plachy back for a second meet-and-greet before the show closes on April 14.