The printing of the photograph was merely the penultimate and not the final step in Miroslav Tichý’s artistic process. His ‘post-production methods’ involved an insistence on neglect. The picture might be sat on, slept on, and walked on; or oddly trimmed and drawn on with a ballpoint pen to improve its composition; or it might end up with a bromide or coffee or rum stain, wrinkled from the rain, or scratched and gnawed by any number of mice.
“I am a prophet of decay and a pioneer of chaos,” the Czech photographer once said, “because only from chaos does something new emerge.” He may have been speaking about himself and his art but just as easily he could have been addressing his physical space. Tichý’s home, from floor to ceiling, was a hoarder’s paradise. Unwashed dishes, books and pictures, paper and drawings covered every square inch, nothing thrown away; bare electrical wires danced dangerously through the air while the stench and the dust were pervasive. And in the midst of such disarray was the photographer, sporting long stringy hair and a long full beard; clothed in a ratty, filthy suit and in staunch individualism. He lived on a crown a day, or three to four cents; reliance on income for him was a threat to his freedom.
He had once been a popular student at Prague’s Academy of Fine Arts, a promising painter until the repressive, post-WWII Stalinist regime threw his canvases into the street. They considered the ‘lone fighter’ an enemy of the State and locked him away in mental institutions on and off over the following decades. But he never quit making art. In the sixties he began experimenting with photography, giving his artistic vision a new dimension. He crudely fashioned a camera from bits of cardboard and plywood, sealing it with asphalt and tape. His telephoto lens was a combination of a paper tube or a plastic drainpipe, Plexiglas and the lenses of old eyeglasses—ground with sandpaper and polished with a mixture of toothpaste and cigarette ash—that he mounted to the camera’s body with underwear elastic at the appropriate distance. The enlarger was equally primitive, made of boards he pulled from a fence.
His photographs, mostly of women whom he shot surreptitiously while walking around his small Moravian hometown of Kyjov, came out blurry, underexposed or/and overexposed. A disconnected longing, one thinks, in their lack of clarity. And in spite of or because of—one and the same given the vagaries of the art world—his ostensible madness, curators and critics saw genius in his work and his unorthodox approach; they catapulted him to fame the moment they heard about him. He went from complete obscurity to a retrospective at Centre Pompidou in 2008 in less than five years. He refused to attend the exhibition in Paris, or any others for that matter, choosing to maintain his independence through near isolation.
One day his neighbor Jana, who regularly looked in on him after his mother had passed away, told him she was afraid of all the mice who were running around; she was setting traps. Deeply distressed Tichý cried, “The mice are my kin. If you kill them, you kill me! I want to be buried beside them!”
Tichý died at the age of eighty-four a year ago, in April 2011. I wonder where he was laid to rest.
Sources: Quotes from Roman Buxbaum, “Miroslav Tichý: Tarzan Retired,” ASX; http://www.tichyocean.com/; Karen Rosenberg, “An Ogling Subversive with a Homemade Camera,” New York Times; February 11, 2010; Geoff Dyer, “Girls, Girls, Girls,” The Guardian, August 1, 2008.
(Image by Miroslav Tichý, untitled and undated, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)