Ending May 9th at the International Center of Photography is a retrospective show of Czech photographer Miroslav Tichy. This is the first North American exhibit of the 80-year-old photographer's work.
During Communist-era Czechoslovakia c. 1950s, Tichy was prone to psychotic episodes following his tenure at an art school in Prague. He lived in a the town Kyjov, and became known by townspeople unaware of his artistic history for being creepy. Citizens of Kyjov didn't believe the cardboard tubes and broken camera parts he carried around were real; his tools of choice were the absurdly rustic cameras made by his own hand using spare parts and found objects, like the elastic from sweatpants, or empty spools of thread, or metal bottle tops. Rather they thought he was only pretending to take pictures of people in public spaces, like swimming pools, squares, and parks. Now, he's well-known for capturing slivers of the jubilant daily life of a repressed time (note: his objects culminate largely in a collection of Lolita-esque girls).
In some ways, critics have found a way to make his work political. Moving through the show, I wasn't stricken by this aspect of his work, though there's no doubt truth to this given the climate of the day. Maybe these anti-Communist themes didn't leap out at me because a recurring theme of my own life has been accidentally befriending the odd recluses others shy away from. I don't see them as bucking the system politically, but rather as being mentally ill, unable to conform and function with clarity in the world around them. Not to say they don't carry throughout their lives the occasional special stamp of artistic brilliance.
I went to see this show with two of my Parsons independent study students, both of whom weren't particularly impressed by his work. I can sort of see why-- many of the tattered black and white images would alone have a snapshot quality that make you feel like you're looking at someone else's grandparents' Heyday Shots. There are black and white photographs of laughing girls with their arms around each other, sometimes posing for the camera, but more often than not the images are of women walking away from him, oblivious of their role as Muse. Together, the collective sum of all the photographs shown, along with the foreboding cases of simultaneously brilliant and insane makeshift cameras, stuck in my mind for days.
The 2004 82-minute film by Tichy's longtime neighbor, psychiatrist Roman Buxbaum, loops in a room off of the main show. The film offers up a space for another side of Tichy's legacy; his charm and humor. He's fully aware and in command of his eccentricities, and beautifully unapologetic about them. "Something perfect and beautiful is of no use to anyone," he says in the film.