David Plakke left Michigan for New York in the mid-eighties. Upon his arrival, Plakke set up his photography business, and he has been in demand ever since. His many clients include advertising firms and such institutions as the National Academy and the Austrian Cultural Forum. Plakke has photographed architecture, fine art, cultural events, musicians, artists, and the corporate world. In 1987, Plakke created the first of two books about the people in Hoboken, New Jersey, incorporating photos and oral histories for Hoboken Portraits: Photographs and Text. The second, titled Portrait of a Mile Square City: Stories from Hoboken, came out in 1991. More recently, he was the photographer and videographer for Diana Gregor’s heim.at.home (2012), a book and app project about Austrian Holocaust survivors living in New York.
Terry Stoller spoke with David Plakke in May 2015 about his childhood fascination with photographic processes, his involvement in academia, his experimental project exploring the possibilities for a blind photographer, his Hoboken books, his fine arts photography, an encounter with Henri Cartier-Bresson, his work in advertising, and his ongoing personal project called Tribes.
Terry Stoller: I’ve read that you got interested in photography at a young age—and that you made your own equipment.
David Plakke: [He shows me a picture taken by his father: A young David with a Kodak camera is photographing his sister, while his sister is pointing a toy gun at him.] That’s a Kodak Brownie. My sister remembers how much she hated me that day. She didn’t want to have her picture taken.
As a little kid, I used to read Popular Mechanics. My buddy Steve and I both had Popular Mechanics, and it showed how to build an enlarger. It was just a little plain wooden box that you put a piece of glass in. The magazine gave all the dimensions, so we probably had it cut for us. It was basically a little contact printer; it had a little 15 watt bulb. We’d get the film processed; then you could do a contact print. But the contact prints were 2¼ inches because that was the size of the old film. So I built my enlarger at Steve’s house without telling my parents. We made everything work—you just basically turned the switch on and off. One day when my parents took off for several hours, I went down into the basement. I got all the supplies and laid everything out and tried to do something, and of course it was too bright. I got the sheets off my bed and put them around my dad’s workbench. Tried it again. It was still too light. So I got black spray-paint—that’s what my dad had—and I spray-painted my sheets, and I was able to make prints. At that point my parents came back. I remember them first being kind of angry because I had destroyed the sheets. But then I said, Look, I have pictures. I don’t remember ever getting punished for it.
I’ve been interested in photography since I was around 8. My dad was an amateur photographer. He was also a professional musician before he decided he needed to own a wholesale company. My mom was an accordion and piano player, and my dad was a clarinet and saxophone player. I also play the saxophone. I’ve played my whole life.
Growing up, you were into photography, and you had the music background. But you went with photography.
I’m a very practical person. As I got older, I thought I can always play my horn, but I can make more money as a photographer. If I could have made more money as a saxophone player, I would have done that.
First, though, you were involved in academia.
My original degree was pre-med. I was going to go into ophthalmology. I was always interested in physics. I was interested in chemistry. I just loved the way light worked. I think that goes back to being a kid with a camera, seeing how you could create shadows. But before that, I had been drafted into the army, and I worked as a medic on a burn ward in San Antonio, Texas.
When I was finishing up my third year at Grand Valley State in Michigan, I was between a statistics and an anatomy exam, and I had some time, and I walked into a public broadcasting TV station on campus. The art director looked at me and said, So you’re here for the job? And I said, What job? And he said, For the photography job. I thought, That’s interesting. I said, I could be. We walked into the photographer’s room, and it was just a disaster. It was negatives stacked on top of negatives and stuff all over. And I said, I could never work at a place this disorganized. The guy said, You think you could do better? I said, Do I think I could do better? And I went and stacked a couple of things and said, Already it’s better. And he said, If you want the job you can have it. I thought, I’m not looking for a job. I’m on the GI bill. I don’t need to work. But, I thought, I could do photography. And I had spotted a 16-mm Bolex—I was always more into film than I was into photography. So I took the job. At that point, it was really early on with PBS. I was meeting Lilias, the “First Lady of Yoga,” and Jim Henson. I met all these people because they would travel from one PBS station to another. It really started getting into my blood. The GI bill provided you with five years, so I thought I’d take advantage of it and get a second major. I did the second major in film and photography at William James College. The first one was at GVSU College of Arts and Sciences. William James College was more like Westbeth, a bunch of artsy-fartsy types running around. It was a nice balance for me.
When I was still working at the TV station, I opened up a business called Mathew Brady’s Antique Photography Studio. I researched different chemicals, got toners, added that to the chemicals and came up with a process in which I would shoot a Polaroid using a 4 x 5 view camera. After exposing the Polaroid in a process camera, I would process the print in a photomechanical transfer bath. The final product was a sepia-toned 8 x 10 print. I had that business for three years out of college in Saugatuck and Holland, Michigan, and Chicago. Then I was offered a chance to teach back at William James College, and I did that for a few years.
Didn’t you also teach in Kalamazoo?
I was offered a full ride for an MFA if I would also teach at Western Michigan University, and I was there for three years. After that, I moved here.
Before you left Kalamazoo, you did a project in 1984 with Tim Vallender, who was blind. Could you talk about that work?
There was a whole large blind community in Kalamazoo because there was a school that helped people acclimate to an urban environment. You would see people walking with other people and guide dogs, going to corners and figuring out how to cross the street. I found myself walking behind a blind person, half a block behind, and watching them and thinking, How do they know where to go? Obviously, if you want to go to a McDonald’s restaurant, you know what that smells like, so you can follow your nose. But how would they know when they were at the clothing store? And then after they got into the clothing store, how would they know that purple and red don’t really match? I had these questions, again because of the medical stuff that I was interested in and the ophthalmology.
I was in the Market Place Restaurant in Kalamazoo, and Tim walked in with Auggie, his guide dog, and he sat right next to me. He even started talking to me. We ended up drinking a ton of coffee, and I said, Hey, I’ve been obsessed with trying to understand what a blind person sees when they walk down the street. Would you like to do a photography project with me? And he said, Of course.
This is how we did the first photograph: He was wearing his dark glasses, and he had Auggie. It was snowing. I had a Widelux camera at the time, a 140-degree angle camera, and I had a cassette tape recorder. I gave him the camera. I kept the tape recorder. He said, What should I take a picture of? I said, Whatever you want. He said, Hello. I said, Hello—and he took my picture. At that point, we were walking down the street, and he took a picture of a telephone pole. And it was quiet because there was snow. I said, What did you just take a picture of? He said, I think that was a telephone pole. And I said, How do you know? And he said, Because my feet, the steps bounced off from the pole, and there’s a car across the street in a driveway, and it stopped that sound, and I heard my sound. We would get by a brick wall—the brick absorbed sound. We would get to an entranceway—which is how a blind person can figure out where they’re going. They know the clothing store is three doorways past a certain corner, and there’s an entranceway. Especially if it’s a glass entrance. It sounds like a seashell. It traps sound. It swirls. Plate glass windows reflect sound the same way they reflect our images.
The work was exhibited in Michigan in 1984. Later there was an exhibit called “Speaking Visually: A Blind Aesthetic” [1987-8] at the New York Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science in D.C. The work was also included in a show that went on an extended tour.
It was first on tour with the Minnesota Museum of Art in a group show called “Art of the Eye.” Scott Nelson was the curator of that. It went everywhere.
After the Michigan show, you moved East.
First of all, it was a very quick show, just before I took off. Literally the week before I took off was when I had the show in Kalamazoo because I wanted to do it for Tim. It was just slide projectors—I didn’t even have any prints up. It was slides and the recording of us talking: “That’s a tree. That’s a fence …” I was outside the gallery, and someone came over to me and said, There are people standing in front of the slide projectors. So I walked in, and the slides were literally hitting the backs of people. It was a bunch of blind people. It was so cool. I stood next to someone and said, You like the show? He said, This is great. I’ve never been to an exhibit that I actually really get. I said, I’m the guy who came up with the idea. The photographer is over there. The only thing is, you’re standing right in front of the damn projector. Nobody else can see. He said, Oh, sorry. So I moved him over. We all cracked up. Mostly it was blind people in there, so they didn’t care.
After you moved East, you lived in Hoboken for a while, where you produced two books of photographs along with short oral histories of the people there.
Hoboken Portraits was done in 1987 and was the first. That was with these lovely people, David Cogswell and Elena Skye. They had a bookstore with Mark Rogers in Hoboken. They liked the photography I did and asked if I could do a book and do it quickly. I had about three weeks to do that book. So I ran around, recorded stories, did photos. I would process them every day. I gave the editors the tapes every day. We needed to get the book printed and out before Christmas. And it sold out within a week.
How did you find the people for Hoboken Portraits?
I just walked down the street. There are some wonderful people in the book. [He points to the cover.] These two old guys, Al and Benny, in front of the yard with the flowers and the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary: this is so Hoboken, Italian—[he flips through the book]—this guy, Timmy Cappello was a saxophone player with Tina Turner, and Fia was a dear friend of mine. I knew some of them. The Jersey girl with the hair—Is she a Jersey girl? She said, Come into my bedroom. We’ll take the pictures here. I said, Your mother’s home? She said, No, don’t worry. I’m 18. And, of course, she had the zebra bedspread. This woman, Louise Roeder—I’m sure she’s not alive anymore—she was 89 at the time. She danced. I took several photos of her, and she danced around. She said, I wake up in the morning, and my bones hurt and my muscles hurt, and I say, OK, feet move, legs move. Then I start dancing, and I never stop moving.
I’ve always seen my work as being almost like some form of cultural anthropology. It’s the life that surrounds me. So all these people were part of my life at that time. I’ve always seen things more in the way that a filmmaker sees them. I don’t see things as one image. One image captures its own reality, but many images, and you can’t hide behind anything—it’s real. The stories that go with them all make sense.
Portrait of a Mile Square City, the second Hoboken book, came out of that work?
I did that one on my own, because I felt it was time, and things had changed so much already by 1991.
Although you’ve had a thriving commercial business for many years, you’ve also gravitated toward working on projects. A few years ago, you collaborated with Diana Gregor on a book and Web project with photos and stories about ten Austrian Holocaust survivors who live in New York.
Heim.at.home. For Austrians, Heimat is like roots, and it’s important. Diana is Jewish, and dealing with being Jewish and being Austrian. I met her through the Austrian Cultural Forum. They’ve been my client for ten years.
Your photographs are also featured in a book about Raimund Abraham, the architect of the Austrian Cultural Forum’s building in New York City.
I did the architectural photography.
Is that what began your interest in architectural photography?
I’ve never seen myself as one kind of photographer. I’ve done fine arts photography for years. When most of the major galleries were uptown, I shot for Castelli, Pace, Borgenicht, and many others.
Is there a special skill involved in photographing artwork?
You have to be very aware of lighting again. And you have to look at: Is the surface flat like that? If it’s flat like that, you light it one way. If you have a textured surface, where it becomes more three-dimensional, you have to light it a different way. You have to be very aware of not just what something looks like, but the feeling you get from it—and if you can translate that.
For example, I photographed for Arnold Herstand Gallery on 57th Street and Fifth Avenue. I did a bunch of photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s drawings and gouaches. Arnold had me photograph them and do the prints for the exhibition catalog. It was a quick job, back in the day when we photographed things with a 4 x 5 view camera. This was in 1987, at the same time that I had my “Speaking Visually” show at the New York Academy of Sciences. I walked from 89th Street down to 57th Street because I wanted to have a peek at Cartier-Bresson, and I brought my Cartier-Bresson book with me. I felt like such a jerk. I was standing around in the back. Of course, there was a crowd of people around. The director at the time, Shane Dunworth, came up to me and said, David, Arnold needs to talk to you. And I was thinking, Something’s wrong. She grabbed my arm and pulled me through this crowd of probably fifty people, and Arnold was like, David. I was still thinking he was going to yell at me in front of everybody—and there was Cartier-Bresson. Arnold said, David, this is Henri. Henri, this is David Plakke. And Cartier-Bresson said, Oh, monsieur, you are indeed a photographer. And I said, You’re not so bad yourself. He said, I tried and I tried to photograph my gouaches and my paintings, and I couldn’t get it right. You made them perfect. They feel the way they’re supposed to feel.
We went into Arnold’s office, had a bottle of wine and some cheese. I showed him the catalog from the New York Academy of Sciences, and I gave one to him. He said, The blind person took this? This is indeed what I talked about when I said the “decisive moment”—it’s like you react; you don’t think. And he wrote in the book I brought, and he ended up sending me a letter saying it was wonderful meeting me.
He sounds special. Some people are so caught up with themselves that they wouldn’t think of doing that.
You know what? Most people that I’ve worked with that are really successful are the kindest, sweetest people. I think that’s because they no longer have anything to prove. Listen, if there’s anything that I insist that you put in this thing, it’s what Morley Safer wrote on his photo: “To my friend David—a genius—who made me look almost presentable. With admiration, Morley Safer.” Now, Morley Safer says you’re a genius, do you question it? At that point, I thought, It’s done. I start charging more money now!
You photograph musicians, art exhibits, the corporate world. Is there something you prefer?
I prefer my own project. The project that I’ve been working on for years now is called Tribes. But aside from that, I prefer to do the jobs that pay the most money. I prefer to make as much money as possible for as little time as possible. I always do a good job, regardless of the money I make. For the most part, I do a lot of work with big advertising firms. That’s where I did Gregg Allman, Natalie Cole. All the different people you see up there on my wall. They’re usually celebrity spokespeople.
I just did a shoot with Bryan Anderson, who lost both legs and an arm in Iraq. He’s the spokesperson for a power chair. My real strength is portraits of people, and if they’re celebrities or musicians, I’m not intimidated. I also have respect for them, and that’s the majority of my work.
What are you planning to do with the Tribes project?
For Tribes, I do photography, and I do video. It’s people that I meet. I don’t know what I’m going to do with it. [He shows me the memorial program for Juliette Hinton, a Westbeth resident who died recently. His Tribes photograph of her is on the cover.] It’s so sad that Juliette’s gone. I also have a video of her. She talks about how she and her husband met, how they traveled to Africa, how they did all this stuff. She was very cool.
At this point, the Tribes project is photographs online. We’ve turned the videos into short clips, and it’s already about thirty-five minutes. All different people are talking about all different things, talking about their relationship to New York City, talking about their relationship to their family or their friends, whatever it is, their careers. If they’re younger—they’re so much more hopeful when they’re younger. Then you get a little older, and it’s like, Let me tell ya—it ain’t that easy. But it’s all good. I know a lot of young people. I know a lot of older people. I know a lot of people. It’s the nature of my business.
To see more of David Plakke’s photographs and a variety of his video clips, including music and dance, go to davidplakke.com.
Credits: All photographs by David Plakke—except for top photo and reprints of Vallender photos from Print, Jan./Feb. 1988. Courtesy of David Plakke.
Terry Stoller is a Westbeth resident and author of Tales of the Tricycle Theatre.
Profiles in Art, Copyright 2015 Terry Stoller and Westbeth Artists Residents Council