Would you please tell us a little about yourself?
I have a complex personal history. I was born Jewish, a German speaker in Romania, in a city which acquired its architectural style and cultural imprimatur under the Hapsburg Empire. After WWII, it was ceded to the Soviet Union and after the dissolution of the Soviet Empire it became part of Ukraine. My family was dismembered and displaced by the war. Eventually my maternal grandparents, my mother, sister and I immigrated to the United States via the refugee camps of Western Europe.
I was an art student first at the HS of Music & Art and later at Hunter College. In my junior year I dropped out of college and went to Mexico City on a six months visa and stayed over ten years. I got married, had a child and had many exhibitions of paintings, collages, happenings, and other experimental works, taught a class in design at the National University and was an active member of Mexico’s cultural community.
What first brought you to photography?
For some years my first husband and I lived in the Edificio Condesa, a Nineteenth Century English Style housing complex, that was sometimes referred to as “Peyton Place,” because it was inhabited by so many artists, writers, theater and film people – who had wild parties and lived an arty lifestyle. At one point I’d come to the end of a series of large paintings and was casting about for what to do next. One of the neighbors was the photographer Rodrigo Moya, who agreed to teach me the rudiments of photography and take me under his wing in a kind of informal apprenticeship. Rodrigo had traveled all over Latin America documenting guerilla movements and social unrest and bringing back images that were both socially powerful and aesthetically beautiful. I acquired a second-hand Nikon camera and traded Rodrigo a short wave radio for an enlarger and learned from him how to develop and make prints.
Though I loved being out and about with my camera it took me quite a while to take this new avocation seriously, feeling that I was robbing time from the studio and my “real” work. It wasn’t until some years later, when my son and I moved to New Orleans, that I accepted that photography was now my “real” work. New Orleans is a photo friendly city and I had some fairly early success after I arrived – several exhibitions; an invitation to be photographer in residence at the Madewood Arts Festival at a former plantation in Thibodeaux, La, and through happenstance managed to talk my way onto the riverboat where Paul McCartney and his band where celebrating the completion of his “Venus & Mars” album. It was my picture that was used as a poster in the album.
At the end of 1975, my second husband, my son and I moved to Central New York, a hamlet named Knoxboro, where we bought a nineteen-room Greek Revival crumbling mansion. We heated with wood, raised chickens, grew our own vegetables and created a darkroom. My photographic work at the time consisted of taking pictures of my neighbors in their homes, at church suppers, livestock exchanges, and many other local events.
Through my involvement with the local arts community I started exhibiting some of my pictures and was also invited to become the director of a fledgling residency program for professional sculptors in Utica, which I grew into an award-winning international organization. I worked there from 1979-95 and when I left it was to devote myself again full-time to my photographic work….which brings me to “Return.”
Would you tell us about your project “Return”?
The inspiration for this work came at the fall of communism and the opening of borders to countries that had previously been behind the “iron curtain.”
Starting in early 1990 I ventured on a series of circuitous train journeys through post-communist Eastern Europe to explore the terrain of my early childhood and to retrace routes my family traversed as refugees at the end of the Second World War. I called the project “Return”, with a touch of irony because I knew there’d be no family hearths nor long lost relatives to greet me at my destination.
By 1999 I’d made six expeditions through the Eastern Europe, traveling hundreds of miles by train, shooting many rolls of film, keeping a journal, writing four personal essays, earning grants, fellowships and residencies and presenting the work through exhibitions, lectures, publications, and websites, and though there remained many unanswered questions, things
that I would never know because of all the documents and people lost in the maelstrom of war and genocide. My metaphoric quest nonetheless fulfilled a need for me to see the land where I was born, acknowledge the collective history of which I am a part, and to make a body of work about the process.
And you are doing a sequel?
But around 2006 I discovered a website, designed as a repository for information about the genealogy, history and culture of the Jewish community of Czernowitz and its environs. Accompanying the site is a chat line, whose participants, all emigrants from this region – now in their seventies, eighties, nineties – converse online, reminiscing about their youth, exchanging stories about daily life before the war – the things they ate, the customs they had, the jokes they told – and about the fascist time, the hunger, the fear, the struggle for survival – and in effect recreating a virtual old world city in cyberspace. Through these exchanges I’ve learned new details, corroborated vague memories and started gaining insight and inspiration for a sequel to my original body of work.
One of the significant developments of recent times are two summer work camps organized to prune and clear the vast and vastly overgrown Jewish cemetery. Sponsored through two NGOs, one out of Germany, the other from Ukraine, they each sign up volunteers for two-week periods of intensive work. During these sessions one might find the son or granddaughter of an SS soldier working alongside the son or daughter of a Holocaust survivor and participants of all ages from the U.S., Romania, Germany, France, Israel, and other countries working side-by-side and carrying on conversations.
Through a series of cinematic diptychs, I will intertwine documentary images and portraiture, with symbolism and metaphor, to construct a complex narrative that shows how after decades of war, genocide, dictatorship and repression in this troubled area, it could be possible to sow seeds for rebuilding, for reconciliation and healing. Or as the old rabbi once said, “Memory is the source of liberation as forgetfulness is the root of exile.”
“Return” is a long-term self-commissioned body of work. It has been supported in part by the Art Matters Inc, Aaron Siskind Foundation, CEC/ArtsLink, The New York Foundation for the Arts, Light Work, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Bemis Center for the Arts, Austrian Ministry of Culture, Anderson Ranch Art Center, CEPA Gallery, the Constance Saltonstall Foundation, and most recently the Society for Photographic Education who awarded me their 2013, Art Sinsabaugh Creative Artists Project Grant as seed money for the upcoming phase of this project.
Which photographers and other artist work do you admire?
Too many to enumerate. But Kandinsky never ceases to thrill me and all the German expressionists that I loved in my youth; and among photographers Bill Brandt, Diane Arbus, Roger Ballen, Lorna Simpson, Duane Michaels, Nan Goldin, Eikoh Hosoe, James Nachtway, to name just a very few – and so also many of the great writers whose words leave lingering images in my mind and add context to my work– and filmmakers and film editors like Walter Murch, who pare down as much as a hundred hours of footage into an hour and a half of cohesive dramatic juxtapositions, that increasingly inspire my own interest in cinematic narrative.
What makes a great photograph in your view?
Compelling subject matter in combination with compositional tension
What challenges do you face as a photographer
It’s always a juggling act – one either has time or one has money. When I was the director of Sculpture Space, I had only weekends and vacations to think about my own art – which sometimes meant that I was working ALL the time and never getting as much done as I would have liked. Subsequently I was a Visiting Instructor in the art department at Hamilton College 1998-2008, in a fluctuating situation that was sometimes full-time, sometimes half-time, that worked very well for my personal professional advancement.
Currently I’m “self-employed,” working on non-commercial self-assigned projects that earn me some income through grants, fellowships, honoraria for speaking engagements and print sales. I also teach a B&W class at Pratt Institute upstate campus.
Would you tell us about your workspace?
Not much to tell – I shoot both film and digital. Presently I don’t have a darkroom so I upload digital files, develop film and scan the negatives and work mainly on my computer. When I have need of prints for exhibition I go to Light Work in Syracuse, where they have professional inkjet printers and offer technical assistance at reasonable fees to prior resident artists.
How does your art effect the way you see the world?
Since I’ve always been an artist I can’t imagine seeing the world otherwise – but my art heightens my sensitivity to beauty, awareness of human drama and eases my engagement with the world around me.
How important is it to your art form to have “creative community”?
I think that having dialog with other artists, both past and present, is important to the creative process. Luckily I’ve always been able to act as a magnet for people and whether I’m running an arts organization or teaching at a college or working on my own I’m always in touch with colleagues in creative fields. I’m a member of the Society for Photographic Education, and an active user of social media, through which I’ve come to know a national and global sector of artists, writers, thinkers and other interesting people.
Thank you Sylvia for sharing your work and words with us. To learn more about the work of Sylvia de Swaan please visit her site at Sylvia de Swaan.
2 thoughts on “The Journey of Sylvia de Swaan”
A gorgeous collection of evocative photographs. This is also a terrific account of your life story, your approach as an artist and the current work in progress. Thank you!