Last April, photographer Miroslav Tichý died at age eighty-four in Kyjov, the same small Czech Republic town where he was born. Despite recent solo exhibitions of his work––at Kunsthaus Zürich in 2005 and at New York’s International Center of Photography in 2010––Tichý is still relatively unknown. The residents of Kyjov largely regarded him as a disheveled eccentric who, for nearly thirty years, could be found lurking around the local pool with his makeshift cameras. More often than not, the subjects of Tichý’s pictures were bikini-clad women, snapped as they lolled in the sun, completely unaware that they were being photographed. Indeed, most of the townsfolk assumed there wasn’t any film in his grimy, decrepit contraptions, with their priapic telescopic lenses. And yet we are left with a vast oeuvre––purportedly thousands of hazy black-and-white images of women––that has spawned a proliferation of exhibitions, such as the recent selection at Horton Gallery, organized in collaboration with Howard Greenberg Gallery and the Tichý Ocean Foundation.
It’s hard to know exactly when Tichý’s reputation began its ascent. Harald Szeemann was an early supporter and included the work in the 2004 Bienal Internacional de Arte Contemporáneo de Sevilla. Soon after, stories of Tichý started to trickle through the photography world. Some writers latched on to his biography: his training as a painter at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, his enforced military service in Slovakia, his return to new Communist regimes in Kyjov in 1950, and his move to snapshot photography as a disavowal of socialist realism. Others praised his de-skilled technique and materials: his cardboard frames and hand-drawn mats, the hastily cut prints—all of which share the fundamental quality of being, as Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev puts it, lo-res. Meanwhile, the much larger and more pressing issue, that of the artist’s pathological voyeurism, particularly the way his desires played out through ritual and repression, has mostly been jettisoned by art historians and critics, who have instead appraised Tichý as “flaneur” (Brian Wallis) and “everyman” (Geoff Dyer).
“Sun Screen,” the bijou Horton exhibition, provided a quick glimpse into Tichý’s work, featuring only nine photographs and Tarzan Retired, a 2006 documentary by Tichý biographer Roman Buxbaum that was assembled from footage shot in the 1980s and ’90s. The photos, dating from the ’50s through the ’80s, were chosen for a shared attribute: a mesh fence between the artist and his subjects, which serves formally to pin the bathers down. Despite the somewhat self-aware, wry sound bites proclaimed by Tichý in the video (“Women are the main theme in my art––naturally!”), the images are truly souvenirs of his chronic sexual neurosis; they are talismans that he could touch, modify, and “own.”
Are these works mere vehicles for his obsession? Or do they also reconstruct an analogy between the omnipresent gaze of the state (with which he was presumably all too familiar) and the alternately doting and objectifying gaze of the Peeping Tom? Given the major advances in World War II imaging technology (better lenses for better snipers), Tichý’s pictures expose something much more complex than voyeurism. In the Horton show, the scratches and scabbed-up prints brought to mind sensations of itching or burning, literally and metaphorically. They represent burning with desire and itching from a habit-fixation. Yet they also resonate as bizarre burlesques of modernity’s advanced technics, stamped with everything alien to the postwar surveillance state’s ideals of clarity and flawlessness.