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Extravagant Disorder | The Nation

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Extravagant Disorder

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About the Author

Jana Prikryl
Jana Prikryl is on the editorial staff of The New York Review of Books.

Also by the Author

How a photographer’s images of Jews were liberated from the lachrymose history he imposed upon them.

Dwight MacDonald, Jana Prikryl

If you orbit slowly the ground floor of the ICP, scanning Tichy's images along the outside wall of the large, flood-lit cube, one of the things you may feel is uncomfortable. My first impression drew me up short: these were the trophies of a hunter, and by looking at them I became complicit in his chronic trespasses against the women of Kyjov! Perhaps I felt especially protective of the ladies because I knew that, even without the nuisance of this amateur photographer, they already had to dodge the various aggressions of the state--which inevitably took the form of aggression among private citizens. In a world where advantages large (jumping the wait list for a Skoda car) and small (first dibs on rare items like chic winter coats) were greased with bribes and mutual favors, the ordinary act of looking at other people became laced with appraisal. You wanted to avoid being looked at too much because looks could invite talk, and talk could lead to a phone call curbing your conspicuous advantages. It's a nice irony, then, that Tichy's photographs evoke this all-pervasive fug of alienation--in his case between photographer and subject--even as his methods must have added to tensions that the women in Kyjov experienced daily.

Much as I wanted to, I did not feel an equal welling of sympathy when looking at the state-hounded and truly endangered targets featured in Prague Through the Lens of the Secret Police, a recent collection of surveillance photographs taken between 1969 and 1989 and published, unfortunately, in a bewildering edition by the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, in Prague. These images have an undeniable weightiness, or carry at least a freight of curiosity. We see Timothy Garton Ash taking long strides in a trench coat in Prague in April 1985; a year later, in an article on Czechoslovakia, Garton Ash mentioned trying to avoid the StB, or the secret police, when going to meet Vaclav Havel. Was that trek the 35-millimeter moment? But the subjects of these photographs usually knew that, unjust as it was, their sympathies or actions were provoking the worst abuses of the state: they were consciously engaged in a war of wits and nerve. The stalking wasn't personal. Granting that very often Eastern bloc snitches were motivated by envy or greed, those interesting emotions leave no mark on the dead, dry spy photos.

By contrast, Tichy's body of furtive photographs commemorates a lifetime of intrusions that were, as a woman would say, uncalled for. Yet looking at the photographs one by one, an odd inversion emerges: the few shots in which the subject acknowledges the photographer with no hint of ambivalence--a handful of women by the pool are captured flirting with Tichy, one even standing proudly in a beauty-pageant pose--convey the least about her as a person. As I looked more closely and more slowly at each image at the ICP, a line of Rilke's popped into my head: "And it is in overstepping that he obeys." It's where the women are taken unawares, the particulars of their location and even their faces blurred, that their inwardness is best preserved and some kind of essence shines through. The miracle of Tichy's arm's-length method is that personalities do leave an imprint. Yes, heads are cut off and certain body parts are relentlessly "captured" (in her catalog essay Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev astutely observes that these synecdoches "point to an infant's fragmented view of the female body"), but the photographs don't melt into a generic view of Woman: each figure is unique and pregnant with her own idiosyncrasies.

Related to the tactile quality of Tichy's various methods of doctoring the photos are the "frames" he placed around some of them. About a quarter of the shots at the ICP are matted with cardboard imitations of picture frames, on which zigzags and curlicues drawn with brushes, pens and pastels seem to work like quotation marks, playfully teasing out a pattern within the photograph, or declaring that here is the haughty grandeur of art, or suggesting something less ironic--the simple exuberance of "I made this!" Often there is a mysterious visual logic between the frames' colors and textures and the images they contain, akin to the intuitive coherence of Rauschenberg's combines. It's easy to dismiss Tichy's faux picture frames, but to me they seem like signs of the work's private value to him, of his solitary dialogue with it, perhaps not intended for exposure to the gaze of strangers in foreign museums. Insofar as personal snapshots react differently to transplantation from private to public soil, Tichy's frames are meaningful roots.

The isolation of the artist with his work is, oddly enough, one of the things that connects Tichy to his time and place. "I am both artist and audience," says Bohumil Hrabal's main character, Hanta, in the novel Too Loud a Solitude (1976). What happens when an artist is forced to occupy those two positions at once? Much "unofficial" art from the Eastern bloc engaged with this problem, some works more adroitly than others. Quite often, it appears, the impulse to outrun formal structures that seemed dictated by the state propelled the artist into the arms of contingency, chance and some form of unrestrained appetite--some extravagance of gluttony or disorder. (Vera Chytilova's 1966 film Daisies--in which two willful, succulent lasses mow a path through society and eventually through linear narrative--can be read, among other things, as an allegory of this trend.)

If the disheveled aesthetic had a spokesman, it might be Hrabal's Hanta, a morally revealing and hilarious outcast who operates a trash compactor. He designs each bale of garbage with loving care, savoring his choice of the books and prints that will be smashed and sent off to oblivion. Notably, his commitment to witnessing the destruction of his culture comes to shape him, too: "I have to go easy on the hygiene, working with my bare hands: I can't wash them until night, because if I washed them several times a day my skin would crack. But sometimes, when a yearning for the Greek ideal of beauty comes over me, I'll wash one of my feet or maybe even my neck, then the next week I'll wash the other foot and an arm."

In the end Too Loud a Solitude reveals itself to be a romantic work: the socialist state finally fulfills its promise, and Hanta's primitive compactor is replaced by a gleaming new factory that makes him, and his self-defeating art, redundant. But in real life Hanta's unkempt counterparts weren't granted such a magnificent exit. It turns out that Tichy's photographic methods were not altogether unique behind the Iron Curtain: there were pockets of movements in Hungary and East Germany that deliberately used cheap equipment and took casual snapshots in an effort to produce something "genuine" in the face of a false socialist reality. A round-up of Eastern bloc photography, shown at MIT in 1987, quoted a Czech photographer named Milan Knizak, who said of his working habits: "From time to time I pressed the button.... I didn't use the automatic, I didn't focus the picture, etc.... Some parts came out clean, some not. As in life." The handful of his photographs reproduced in the catalog Out of Eastern Europe: Private Photography look merely accidental and discomposed. They have none of the movement and suppleness of Tichy's images.

Given this specific historical context, it's unfortunate that the ICP's presentation simplifies Tichy's work and barely addresses his ambivalent position as both victim and encroacher. The curators want to have it both ways: apparently his lifestyle represented a brave stand against socialism's conformity and his methods of taking covert photographs parodied state surveillance practices, yet the images are straightforward celebrations of uncomplicated village life. According to a wall plaque at the ICP, Tichy was a garden-variety street photographer who sought to capture daily life in public spaces: "The everydayness of Tichy's photographs typifies what French novelist Georges Perec called the 'infra-ordinary' (as distinguished from the 'extra-ordinary'), and defined as that which passes when nothing passes."

This simultaneous sanitizing and overstating does no service to the complexity of Tichy's project: to Tichy every photograph was an event, a point of contact with a world he had renounced, whether for reasons of ethical purity or psychological difficulty. In this sense his method truly turns Berger's definition of photography on its head: rather than caring about the precise decisions that went into the making of each shot, Tichy cared about the total experience: the confluence of a woman on the street, his seeing her and perhaps by chance imprinting her on his roll of film. If all those things happened--and two out of three were beyond his control--then he had a picture. Another wall plaque calls the photographs "artifacts of a deliberately abusive production process in which injury and distress are not only allowed but considered philosophically." This observation is closer to the mark but still arid and clinical. For the ICP to hope that viewers just wouldn't notice the serialized sexual content of these images suggests how powerfully discomfiting it is. Once you look it in the eye, the subject could run away with you.

 

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