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Volume 1 Number 8
March 17 to 23, 2010
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Soho Photo
Miroslav Tichy

International Center of Photography
1133 Ave of the Americas
Midtown         Map

212 857 0000

Wednesday, March 10 to
Sunday, May 9, 2010
Hours: Tues - Sun, 10 to 6; Fri to 8

Making Caribbean Dance

Miroslav Tichy

 image courtesy of presenting venue

William Faulkner was of the opinion that the personality and presence of the artist should fade away to nothingness, leaving only his work to speak for itself. Faulkner’s perspective is invaluable in evaluating the exhibition of photographs of Miroslav Tichy now on view at ICP.

Tichy was born in Czechoslovakia in 1926 and lived most of his life in the small city of Kyjov, where he still resides today. He studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, but rebelled against the structured environment and rigid socialist realism doctrine of art that was the official aesthetic of the communist system. However, one conclusion from the portrayal of Tichy in the supplementary materials of this exhibition is that he would have had difficulty fitting in any society, communist or otherwise. He was the quintessential outsider: unkempt with uncut hair and beard, dressed in little more than rags, roaming the streets with what appears to be a mad man’s parody of a camera, presumably nonfunctional, and given to controversial pronouncements on art and life --- for example: “If you want to be famous, you have to do whatever you're doing worse than anyone else in the whole world.” “All paintings have already been painted; what’s left for me to do?” “Madmen are those who are in the minority.” “All of society is based on sexuality.”

In the early 1960s Tichy turned seriously to photography. He began by making his own cameras, grinding lenses out of plastic with toothpaste and ash and using an assortment of at-hand materials such as toilet paper tubes, pieces of elastic, parts of old cameras, etc. We’re never told why he turned to home-made cameras other than a supposition by the curator that “he opposed the modernist infatuation with newness and progress.”

Tichy became a frequent public presence in Kyjov, a shabby figure wandering around with his cameras, the kind of figure you would cross the street to avoid. Seemingly a harmless eccentric, he was tolerated, if not embraced, by the citizens of Kyjov. The authorities were not so understanding, however. May 1st would see him arrested and sent to a mental institution for a few days to ensure that May Day celebrations were not marred by the presence of a figure whose very appearance so challenged the communist ideology of the classless workers’ paradise.

Tichy says he exposed three rolls of film a day, almost exclusively of women, both on the street and at the town swimming pool. His subjects apparently never realized they were being photographed. We see women photographed from the rear, from the front, from the side; we see their feet, legs, buttocks, backs, faces, as well as complete bodies; we see them walking, standing, sitting, bending over, reclining. There are a few nudes, though the poor image quality sometimes makes it difficult to determine if we are looking at a nude or a woman with not much on.

Given the above description of his cameras, as well as Tichy’s casual black-and-white darkroom techniques, it’s no surprise that the resulting images when measured against the ethos of the “fine print” are crude indeed. Prints are typically blurry, marred by in-camera light leaks, spotted with chemical stains, and with little detail. He frequently drew on prints to bring out lines that were insufficiently visible --- e.g., the outline of an eyelid or the edge of a bathing suit strap. Tichy, of course, is under no obligation to conform to the standards of the fine print; how he chooses to create his images is his choice. But just as superb technique does not guarantee a great photograph, neither does its opposite.

Some prints were mounted in cardboard matts decorated with his hand-drawn designs on the borders. Because he pursued photography for his own amusement and satisfaction, he made only one print from each negative. He kept no records of when prints were made, and had no system for cataloguing his work and no means of adequately storing his prints and negatives. The poor physical condition of many prints is attributable in part to the utter squalor in which he lives, in quarters reminiscent of Francis Bacon’s studio. It seems highly unlikely that he could find the negative to make additional prints even if he wanted to.

So, what remains when we do a Faulkner on this exhibition and strip away the personality quirks, personal tragedies, mythic elements of the artist-hero, political complications, etc.? There is a good handful of superb images. One of my favorites shows a reclining woman in a two-piece swim suit --- it could also be bra and panty; it’s hard to tell. The artist has penciled in the edges of the fabric of the top and bottom of the suit, as they are otherwise hardly noticeable. We can’t really distinguish more of the woman than her back, buttocks and upper leg, and the unreadable dark background removes any clue as to context. But the photo succeeds beautifully as a study in form, though its inert abstractness robs it of any erotic appeal. (I say this because much has been made of eroticism in Tichy’s work. Whatever eroticism is present is limited to that of the voyeur; these women are not inviting us into their world.) Fortunately, you can buy a reproduction of this photograph in the shop.

--Photo Here--

Another brilliant image, also taken from the rear, shows a crouching, hunched-over woman seen through a chain link fence. The fence interposed between the subject and the viewer adds an element of forbidden fruit to the equation. A touch of mystery is suggested by the absence of any way of telling what the woman is doing. While there is more individuality of the subject in this photograph than in the one discussed above, once again the image succeeds primarily as a study in form. Especially effective is the juxtaposition of the woman’s upper leg with her back.

But there are too many just ordinary images for this to be a wholly successful exhibition. For example, Tichy places much attention on legs and feet, and several images are limited to this part of the anatomy, though for the most part these are not particularly interesting. Far too many novice photographers have created similarly uninspired pictures under the mistaken impression that they are onto something new.

Only rarely does the limited technique add to the result. One example is the legs and torso, seen from the rear, of a woman in a tight dress sewn out of a print fabric decorated with valentine hearts. Black dots due to sloppy processing are randomly distributed on the print, and they complement and strengthen the design defined by the hearts, making this one of the standouts in the exhibition.

An instructive comparative exercise is to Faulknerize the current Lincoln Center exhibition of W. Eugene Smith photographs, another artist with a good deal of personal baggage (see my review of that show Here). We are left with a much richer and more rewarding result at Lincoln Center than at ICP. Simply put, Smith is much the better photographer.

The 35 minute video is essential viewing if you want a fuller understanding of Miroslav Tichy. There is also a book available in the shop.

R. Wayne Parsons