Unknown for most of his life Miroslav Tichý stole intimate glimpses of his subjects through windows, and the fences of swimming pools, as well as in the streets. Referred to as the local crazy guy, he wandered the small town of Kyjov, in the Czech Republic in rags—pursuing unwitting females through the lens of his homemade camera fashioned from tin cans, children’s glasses, and other discarded items he found on the street.
Following the communist takeover, Tichý spent nearly eight years in a prison camp. After his release, he was frequently jailed for no particular reason other than he being ‘different.’ Considering him subversive, the state tried to keep him out of sight, snatching him up and sending him to psychiatric clinics for days at a time during Communist patriotic holidays. Officially shunned from society, it was around the 1960s that he stopped painting and began making intentionally imperfect cameras and experimenting with photography. But like many other lone wolf artists, he produced work, not for others, but solely for himself without any regard for exhibiting or selling the work to others.
Tichý’s work is unique in so many ways. At first, his photographs look just like any casual street portraits. But then, after learning more about his history, the imagery changes—appearing more like intrusive voyeurism and taking on a melancholic and poetic quality. Most, if not all, of his female subjects thought his camera was not real and would smile to be kind to the crazy local and his toy camera. With his daily artistic excursion complete, he would return home to make prints on equally primitive equipment, making only one print from the negatives he selected.
“First of all, you have to have a bad camera,” and “If you want to be famous, you must do something more badly than anybody in the entire world.” — Miroslav Tichý
Creating small objects of obsession seemed to be Tichý’s objective. He aspired to traditional photographic values, composition and contrast, yet imperfections were an important part of his craft. His negatives were deeply blemished by dust in the camera or stained by processing errors. After printing, Tichý cut off unwanted sections to improve the composition, drew lines to emphasize contours, decorated margins, and mounted his favorite images on cardboard—leading us all to ponder what his intentions were for these photographs.
Living in tiny quarters, Tichý had no room to store his works. But most importantly, he had no interest in giving them a title, let alone cataloguing them. For years, he simply scattered them around his home. This changed in 1981 when a former neighbor, Roman Buxbaum, returned from his family’s Swiss exile. Buxbaum discovered the prints amongst the chaos of undeveloped rolls and cardboard cameras and proceeded to collect and preserve the works. It’s because of Buxbaum, the work of Tichý has since been celebrated at museums and galleries across the world including London, Paris and New York.
As the years passed, the artist’s renown continued to grow, most notably with a 2009 solo show at New York’s International Centre of Photography, his first in North America. After reaching the pinnacle of fame, Tichý cut ties with Buxbaum and eventually passed away in 2011 at the age of 84. Today, more than ever, the photography of Miroslav Tichý continues to have us ask questions about content, form, and creation.