Photography's Creep
Miroslav Tichý @ the International Center for Photography NYC [jan 9th 2010 - may 9th 2010]
Exhibition review written by me for art history class

IT IS EASY TO PASS JUDGEMENT on Miroslav Tichý, the eccentric 84 year-old Czech photographer, especially after seeing a picture of him now or what he looked like 30 years ago. Tichý appears to live his life by two principles. The first is that you can grow or build anything essential that is needed to live. The second is that a life navigated and perpetuated by chance is not meant for the control freaks. In a way, this plays as a strange parallel to his persona and his art displayed at his current exhibition at the International Center of Photography. The viewer cannot simply just judge Tichý or his works of art, but is pushed to understand them within the context of his personal and artistic values; the viewer is forced to appreciate them for what they concretely are without trying to lose them in the abstract kaleidoscope of conceptual thought. Tichý himself admitted that he did not think about anything when he took pictures- he said it was "just like playing cards". In this respect among many others, Tichý's photography is both revolutionary and anachronistic in that it denied the technological advances of photography of its time, its content refused involvement with or avoided direct reaction to any kind of influence outside his own little world, and it defied the artistic standards of the time. Instead, he took the do-it-yourself approach that enhanced an already private relationship with his photographs and embraced the scientific capabilities reminiscent of photographers during the early stages of the medium.

There are an abundance of questions to ask when it comes to Tichý, his purpose for his art, and his legacy. It is quite overwhelming trying to decide which is the most imperative to have answered first and which to ask last because Tichý is such a complex and disturbing human being. To try to properly contextualize his photographs is to attempt to comprehend the artist himself, and that seems nearly impossible and cautiously undesirable. The confusion starts with the short written description at the very beginning of the exhibition and ends with the documentary film by Roman Buxbaum titled Miroslav Tichý: Tarzan Retired. With the outline of the exhibition, the curator, Brian Wallis (who is also the chief curator of the ICP), leads the viewer to believe that Tichý's photography was a direct reaction to the communist takeover of his country. Wallis insists that the repetitive everyday life themes and social subjects that Tichý explores was his own personal manifestation of protest against the political upheaval. Throughout the exhibition, the curator presents different ways to look at Tichý's photographs, as in providing different lenses to look Tichý's art under, all with the purpose of supporting the exhibition's main thesis. There are some flaws with this primarily because it is difficult to believe that pictures of women's legs and backsides with backdrops of parks, pool, and other familiar locations can be very effective means of protest. Even if this was precise and undoubtedly true, the curator's connect-the-dots strategy seems to get in the way Tichý's intentions. In other words, the curator's ideas seem to speak louder than the works of art themselves, and set false expectations for the viewer. At the end of the exhibition, the viewer is susceptible to leaving with the conflicting theory that Tichý lifestyle was perhaps the direct response to the disillusionment caused by war and politics, but not his art.
The way the photographs are organized suggest so much about Tichý's methods and maybe as far as his artistic purpose. They are arranged so that there is a center photograph that emphasizes what is not highlighted or what is missing in the other photographs surrounding it. They are paired in groups that range between 5-8 photographs, and are framed first by Tichý's very own homemade paper frames that have some color lines and/or drawings around it, and then by wooden frames that neither take away or enhance the photograph. The groupings only last long enough so that the viewer gets accustomed to Tichý's content, and then that is when the curator decides to presents different ways of understanding Tichý's eccentric pictures. The photographs are then presented individually, but still weaved within a common thread. This is beneficial to the viewer because it creates a flow that helps the audience study his images very easily. The sections are defined within the space of the exhibition and this helps avoid contextual congestion, but does not strengthen the exhibition's thesis. The more the exhibition develops, the more its thesis gets lost in Tichý's raw monochrome photographs of headless women and recurring body parts that he appears to favor in his photography. Moreover, the literal timelessness of his art only underlines Tichý's rebellious artistic style. It does not support the idea that these photographs were an experiential reaction to communism in Czechoslovakia. They do not possess the documentary style nor do they even look like they were taken for any particular purpose. There is nothing chronological about his photographs except for how they are loosely categorized in the exhibition.
In the documentary film that is presented in the adjacent room of the last part of the exhibition, the viewer gets the opportunity to learn about Tichý's personal life. This documentary by Roman Buxbaum titled Miroslav Tichý: Tarzan Retired helps contextualize his art in his personal history and gives insight into his purpose in art, his style, and principles. It provides for some closure of the exhibit and also makes you feel as if you can encapsulate Tichý in the scope that he is presented in. Yet, at the same time, it accentuates another major flaw of the exhibition. When in the film the narrator tells us that Tichý began taking photographs in 1945 after finding a camera inside a wooden draw, is the audience to think that this was the simple coincidental event that launched Tichý's photographic exploration? The exhibition fails to answer or even to address the role that chance plays in his life and the powerful spontaneity in his art. His homemade cameras and other photographic tools are the epitome of how he treats chance- he believes that the flaws in the pictures that his equipment produces are part of the art, poetry, and composition. Furthermore, the exhibition fails to address the voyeuristic tendency and style of his photography. By the carelessness of the preservation of his photographs, it is extremely clear that his photos were not intended for the local gallery even back then and that his subjects probably were not aware that they were being photographed. Was Tichý the neighborhood creeper? Is this why Tichý's subjects appear to be photographed from a distance? The recurring subjects of women's body parts also stimulate questions. Was he presenting women as objects in his photos, because they do not seem as if Tichý was treating them as subjects with personality? The exhibition completely ignores the feminist perspective and its complexities. The only way that these concerns are even hinted at is through the display cases of his photographic materials and tools. It is constructed by the curator in Tichý’s manner- it followed the negligent and messy style of Tichý. Yes, it is clear that Tichý's style was purposeful and that he chose to explore the people and actions of social space, but can it be this simple? Although Tichý himself avoided conceptualizing his own art and discouraged the viewer from doing so too, there is so much more to Tichý and his art that this exhibition fails to explore and investigate. It takes a three dimensional artist and only examines him from one dimension, so to speak.
One outcome of this Tichý showcase is that it makes the viewer apprehend their role as an audience. We can only wonder what would have been the fate of Tichý's photographs if he had not been discovered a few years ago. It makes the viewer aware of the consequence they have on the understanding of an underground photographer's art. Perhaps the curator had little choice to try to historically contextualize Tichý's work because it does not really have legitimate consistency in it- one could argue that Tichý just took pictures for the sake of taking pictures. The difficulty that Tichý must have presented the curator is communicated within the exhibition not with the photographs displayed but with the content of the photographs - women bathers, women walking in town, women going somewhere, women bending down and tying their shoes. It makes you wonder whether or not Tichý needs an audience at all or if he intends his photography for one? The curator does prepare the audience for Tichý's "intensity, frequency, and regularity" in the beginning of the exhibition, but it does little to diminish the discomfort produced through the photographs. If Tichý desires that the viewer should understand his photographs as concrete works that speaks for themselves and not try to conceptualize them with his beliefs about life and art, then what conclusions are we supposed to reach? He sets forth a conflict here that is conveyed in the exhibition. Either Tichý's art was the product of how he lived his life as unpremeditated as possible, believing that chance brought him to photography, or that his art was his own disillusioned and disturbing, nonconformist way of expressing dissatisfaction with the world. Ironically, now that Tichý art has escaped isolation and is circulating the modern world, his homemade photographs do seem to fit in well within the branches of straight photography and film noir type art. His legacy is as much in question as his purpose for taking creepy pictures, but with his exposure to the art world, his photographs are sure to have a passionate following among those who can understand or not. His photographs are so bizarre but they do give a glimpse of what it was like to be Tichý in communist Czechoslovakia, if nothing else.

Above photos by Miroslav Tichý. Untitled & Undated.


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