How often, in these foxed old photographs, the women are taken from behind. Speckled with bromine, curling with age, gnawed by rats in the photographer’s crumbling house, the women in these images have been palpably misused. Made by Miroslav Tichy and on view at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York City (through May 9), the snapshots chronicle the comings and goings of women in the Moravian village of Kyjov between the 1960s and 1980s. Here a blonde struts away from the photographer, her right buttock outlined mercilessly by the fabric of her skirt; there another woman, older and nattier in a flower-print dress, presents an ample derrière as she bends to buckle the strap of her sandal; elsewhere a headless figure in nothing but a white bra and panties is caught sunbathing, the hillocks of her backside captured in uncharacteristically sharp focus. To offer such descriptions, giving a cursory account of a dizzying abundance of only half the population, might suggest that Tichy’s work was no more than a lost man’s hang-up. Yet the subject matter of his images is inseparable from both their history and their ambiguously aesthetic states of decay. They are just as much nonencounters with women–most of whom were not aware that a picture was being taken–as they are encounters with photography.
The way a photograph lops off a slice of reality, severing it from the narrative flow of time, is a seductive thing: it acts like a little hammer to the reflex in our brain that wants to tell stories. Tichy (pronounced TEE-chee, the "ch" as in "chutzpah") stimulates this node with extra vigor because his photographs are not just frozen in time; it seems truer to say that they were frozen once but are now sluggishly thawing. Tichy took them haphazardly, out of focus, with cameras he’d made from scratch using shoeboxes and cardboard rolls and plexiglass (polished with toothpaste and ashes). The prints are over- or underexposed, crookedly cropped, scratched, torn, penciled over, left to rot or be nibbled by rodents, often as if by accident; indeed, the pictures are saturated with accidental effects until the idea of artistic intent itself becomes blurry. John Berger once wrote that "photographs bear witness to a human choice being exercised in a given situation." Tichy’s work bears witness to a skepticism about "human choice" so profound that its abdications seem to come full circle: they force us to think about who or what was responsible for these undeniably evocative pictures, and even to ask (if only rhetorically) whether their flaws were calculated to seed each image with a certain nostalgia value.
Tichy started taking pictures in the 1950s, but it wasn’t until decades later that Roman Buxbaum, a former neighbor who as a child had been fond of him, returned to Kyjov and decided to gather his work. This late harvest resulted in a solo show at the Seville Biennial in 2004, which led to Tichy’s receiving the 2005 Discovery Award from the prestigious Rencontres d’Arles photography festival, followed by shows in Zurich, Frankfurt, London, Paris and now the ICP. These tributes have only heightened the residue of poignancy that clings to his photographs. Looking at them, you think about how Czech history intersected with Tichy’s life and the lives of his subjects: the women we see were followed around town not just by the local derelict with a duct-taped camera but also, quite likely, by state agents with secret shutters in their pockets. Despite Tichy’s sublime indifference to politics, his work cannot but bear witness to a long moment after the Prague Spring when the country’s books and movies seemed to oscillate between restrictiveness and wild bursts of freedom. In Tichy’s universe, it’s as if liberty could be expressed only in the actions of a libertine.
He was born in 1926, the son of a tailor whose shop occupied a front room of the family house, where Tichy lives today. At the age of 18 he moved to Prague and enrolled in the Academy of Fine Arts. He seemed on the path to becoming an esteemed Czech painter; based on a few thumbnails included in Miroslav Tichy, the ICP catalog, his work was reminiscent of the painter Josef Capek. Then the Communist Party seized control of the government in 1948. Social realism quickly became the official aesthetic at the academy, and, as Tichy explains in Tarzan Retired (2004), a documentary made by Buxbaum and on view at the ICP, the school abandoned its core curriculum of figure classes using nude models. When that happened, Tichy says, he dropped out.