Since my post on G.P. Fieret I've been meaning to write up something about another favorite but eccentric photographer Miroslav Tichy. The retrospective currently on show at the International Center of Photography gives me the perfect excuse.
Much like Feiret's story, Tichy was a reclusive, hermetic man almost eighty years old when he was 'discovered' by the art world in 2004. His first exhibition was staged at the prestigous Kunsthaus in Zurich. As written by his friend and biographer Roman Buxbaum it was "one of those fairytales that shouldn't be possible in our globalized art world."
Tichy's story is the epitome of that cliched line between genius and madness and one that is in equal parts tragic, incredible and inspiring. Born in Moravia, Czechoslovakia in 1926, Tichy was a talented young artist, studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague. When the Communist regime took over in 1948, Tichy's story began to twist and turn, first in defiance of the new political order that forced artists to paint what was dictated to them and then through a cycle of mental illness that saw Tichy withdraw from normal society and become an increasingly eccentric and erratic character.
Shunned by a regime that was based on oppressive conformity, Tichy spent much of his time in psychiatric institutions in the late 50's and early 60's and was treated by a friend, psychiatrist Harry Buxbaum, biographer Roman's Uncle.
Upon his release he returned to his hometown of Kyjov where he appears to have been a kind of bogeyman for local kids and the authorities alike, unshaven and ragged and living a feral existence. He maintained a studio (in the home of Roman's grandmother) where he painted and drew and associated with local artists.
By all accounts he seems to have reveled in his outsider status taking on all comers with an air of manic defiance...
"People ask me, What are you, Mr. Tichý? Are you a painter, a sculptor, or a writer? I reply: Do you know who I am? I am Tarzan in retirement."
Tichy was evicted from his studio in the early 70's, the state having nationalized the property and his work thrown into the street. It was a trauma for Tichy who had little else in the world but his paintings and drawings, however it was also the catalyst for Tichy to begin his journey into photography.
"The paintings were already painted, the drawings drawn. What was I supposed to do? I looked for new media. With the help of photography I saw everything in a new light. It was a new world."
A new world is an apt description and one that puts into context how special the work of Tichy is. He is a rare photographer that has existed outside the photography world and almost outside of the process of photography itself. Hand manufacturing cameras and lenses, enlargers and splicing film by hand to fit them, the unique beauty of Tichy's work seems all the more powerful.
"Tichý has photographed people in the park and on the balconies of the tower blocks all around. That requires a powerful telescopic lens with a focal length of between 300 and 500 mm. He made one himself out of materials he found lying around. He made a system of lenses out of old eyeglasses and Plexiglas. The way he works almost brings to mind the Stone Age, but he wouldn't have managed without an intimate knowledge of the laws of optics. As Tichý relates: With a knife I cut a lens out of Plexiglas and then I sand it with sandpaper. When I asked him in amazement whether it worked, he replied: Of course it worked. When I do something, it has to be precise. Of course it worked imprecisely. That was perhaps the art, he added, laughing. Then I grind the lens with various sandpapers: first, course sandpaper, then finer and finer, until you can see through it beautifully. And then what? It needs to be polished. That isn't a problem: you take toothpaste, mix it with cigarette ash, and then you polish it. And that's what I photographed with."
Pretty amazing stuff.
Tichy's pictures, almost exclusively of women, taken surreptitiously and shot from the hip or from under the safety of his jacket are an analysts wet dream. To delve into his years of primitive psychiatric treatment in a Communist state, his obsession with photographing women, the what's and the why's of the Tichy story are not for me to begin to pick apart but there's some excellent articles that I raided for this little piece by Roman Buxbaum on Tichy here and here. He also made this documentary which in it's final version is being shown at ICP as "Tarzan Retired"