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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.

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