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Extravagant Disorder | The Nation

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Extravagant Disorder

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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.

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About the Author

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

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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.

The flavor of his genuinely Franciscan personality--detached from all such follies of man but without a hint of bitterness; indeed, with a great jolly amusement--emerges when he recalls returning to the school sometime later and asking why one model standing before a class had his arm raised for no evident reason. Apparently the man was holding up a hammer. Tichy saw no hammer. "We couldn't get one in such a hurry," he was told, "so the students have to paint it from memory. As soon as we find one, he'll be holding it." As he tells this story--which, after all, is symptomatic of everything about Communist rule that helped sink his hopes for a serious career--the toothless, penniless old man breaks into hysterics. For him the tragedy of history was farcical the first time around.

After leaving the Academy of Fine Arts and serving two years of mandatory military service, Tichy returned not to Prague but to the sleepy town of Kyjov and his childhood abode. He continued to paint, using a neighbor's attic as his studio, and in 1956 he took part in a group show of artists whose work was not deemed "official," presented at the Kyjov hospital. The following year Tichy was poised to exhibit his paintings in another relatively subversive group show--in the capital, where it would be harder to avoid drawing the attention of the authorities. On the eve of the exhibition he withdrew his paintings and suffered "an acute psychotic breakdown," Buxbaum writes in the ICP catalog. Tichy believed that his fellow artists were "part of a fascist conspiracy." He was kept at a clinic for more than a year before being deposited back at his parents' house.

Around this time he became certifiably eccentric, and his abnormality, anticipating in reverse the period of Czech "normalization" following the Prague Spring, manifested itself in a few ways. He was certainly a confirmed dropout and recluse. He stopped changing his clothes and mended his coat with wire until it acquired the worm-eaten texture of something out of a Tim Burton movie. In Buxbaum's documentary Tichy leads the viewer on a tour of his house, explaining how he shares his food (a bag of flour and two potatoes) with a family of rats. These habits alone would have been enough to make his life difficult in Communist Czechoslovakia: not only was his appearance a rebuke to the rather conservative socialist ideal of the clean, honest worker but his habits seemed to advertise a radical independence. Barely eating, barely washing, making whatever he needed, going nowhere he couldn't walk--he simply declined to participate in any exchange that would link him to society. Before every May Day parade, the police would lock him up in an asylum so that the sight of him wouldn't embarrass party officials passing through town; early on, before she died, his mother always packed him a little suitcase for this annual excursion. In the early '60s Tichy also started wandering around Kyjov, out by 6 most mornings, pointing a homemade camera at women.

If we disregard the few remarks about his original intentions that Tichy made some forty years after the fact--most of which are self-deprecating and puncture meaningfulness whenever it seems to bubble up--his work routine appears remarkably disciplined, even rigorous, and indifferent to the claims of his subjects. Buxbaum explains how he took the photographs: he usually kept the camera in his pocket or under his coat when pressing the shutter and rarely framed a shot through the viewfinder. Most people in Kyjov assumed that such a character would lack the wherewithal to assemble functioning devices or to load them with film. In fact, he took three rolls daily, just over ninety exposures. (That's more than 30,000 potential images a year, amounting to half a million over the years he was active--which puts into perspective the fact that about 6,000 photographs have survived, of which just about a hundred are on view at the ICP.) At night he would run the film through a jerry-built enlarger, developing only what looked "similar to the world." In the documentary, Buxbaum is intrigued by this phrase of Tichy's and asks him to elaborate; his offhand reply deflates the moment, indicating that he simply developed anything that was halfway recognizable.

The pictures that resulted from his slapdash technique contain a surprising variety of moods and styles and, ultimately, human personalities. There are the "bathing beauties," bikini-clad women photographed around the public pool. (In this black-and-white world we see proof of Shakespeare's Bohemia, the one that was surrounded by shores.) There are more abstract, Modernist pictures of cropped body parts, gestures islanded from their context. There are blurrier-than-most images of women standing or walking on the street. A few rare shots record glances cast directly at the photographer--the women generally not looking pleased. They seem to have had a hunch about where they stood in this transaction. "To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed," Susan Sontag wrote. "It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge--and, therefore, like power." This dynamic may explain why backsides so predominate in Tichy's oeuvre: besides having a clear preference for the angle, he probably found it easier to photograph women when they weren't facing him. Several of the frontal photos are redolent of porn, showing well-endowed women topless, in close-up, or women posed provocatively but at a remove, on TV screens or magazine covers. And there are a handful of landscapes, most of them grainy and immediate enough to invoke the earliest years of photography but not sufficiently radiant or evocative of elegant repose to earn the comparisons to Josef Sudek that are made in the catalog and documentary.

In other words, nearly all of Tichy's photographs bypass what has been, from the medium's first decades, central to its nature: a moment of recognition. We generally expect photographs of people to record a glance, however fleeting, between the person behind the camera and whoever is in front of it; in a random lineup of major twentieth-century photographs, you could probably identify who took many of them by the expressions on their subjects' faces. August Sander, Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon: their subjects became characters in the photographers' vision of how the world looked. The exceptions to this trend--Walker Evans's surreptitious photographs taken on the New York City subway; Paul Strand's famous portrait of a blind woman, which he claimed was his solution to the problem of finding subjects who wouldn't know he was taking their picture--only reinforce its traditional authority. Instead of embracing a documentary ideal, however, Tichy cultivated a carelessness that resulted in almost pictorial effects. His difference, in these respects, is part of what makes his work look fresh and strange despite its being roughly contemporary with, say, Arbus. In most of his photographs, it's the absence of exchange that grants the subjects distinction and dignity--an autonomy that, by the same stroke, Tichy denies by taking their picture without their consent.

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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