Comments/Context: With the possible exception of the rediscovery of the studio portraits of Mike Disfarmer, the work of Czech photographer Miroslav Tichý is perhaps the best example in the past decade of "outsider" art finding its way into the top echelons of the fine art photography world. Read any article on Tichý and you will be bombarded by his romantic and eccentric backstory: a gifted painter rejects the academy (and the controls of the government) and becomes a wild haired vagabond, obsessively haunting the streets of Kyjov with his camera made of toilet paper tubes and rubber bands, surreptitiously taking pictures of women on park benches and lounging by the town swimming pool, leaving his stained and damaged prints to pile up on the dusty shelves of his ramshackle apartment. The photographer is alternately characterized as obsessive, subversive, reclusive, alcoholic, and voyeuristic, or more simply as a resolutely stubborn (and surprisingly sharp and lucid) dissenter.
Regardless of the whether we find this personal story entertaining or just plain sad, the work itself stands up to the flush of new scrutiny with unexpected strength. At first glance, the images have the well worn look of vernacular snapshots that have been packed up in a box in your grandmother's attic for decades. But after your eye has a chance to adjust, and your brain lets go of the cult of perfection that pervades our view of contemporary photography, these prints resonate with a simple elegance that is enhanced by their blurs and imperfections. The spots, stains, and discolorations are paired with scratches, folds, and tears, and wrapped in hand crafted cardboard mats with swirling decorations; the effect is that each picture becomes a one-of-a-kind object or an artifact, a poetic and ultimately unknowable look into the past.
The exhibit itself is grouped by different cropped views of the female form. There are women in the streets, with patterned coats and dresses, shop girls and waitresses, and pairs of women seen in sidelong portraits, head shots or from the back. There are crossed legs and isolated ankles, feet running, and elaborate shoes. There are people on park benches kissing, dark unrecognizable nudes and dancers, and plenty of bathers and swimsuits, lying down on towels in the grass. The works have the authentic feel of the everyday (with a dose of the surveillance camera), and yet these small public moments have somehow been elevated into something more profound; the common and crude have become graceful and timeless.
While these pictures reminded me a bit of Lartigue or of Winogrand's women, the body of work is really so different from anything else that it is hard to place it in any kind of relative historical context. It is the work of an artist who chose to recede away from the establishment, to reject the accepted truths and search for something more real and personal amidst the routines of day to day living. What I like best about these pictures is that they seem altogether genuine - all the imperfections come together to make something which is the refreshing antidote to overworked, overreferenced photography. In the end, I think Tichý's personal story falls away and the pictures come forward as tangible, fragmented expressions of the beauty in the familiar.
Collector's POV: Several different galleries in New York have either had small shows of Tichý's work or carry some prints in inventory, but it is difficult to discern which of these might be his official representative, if one exists. Perhaps it is Howard Greenberg Gallery, but I am not certain (maybe someone can clarify in the comments.) Tichý's work has only recently found its way to the secondary markets; prices for the few prints that have surfaced have ranged between $3000 and $10000.
Rating: ** (two stars) VERY GOOD (rating system described here)
- Tichý Ocean foundation site (here)
- Reviews: NY Times (here), Financial Times (here), Guardian, 2008 (here)
Through May 9th
International Center of Photography
1133 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10036