Tichý is known for capturing covert shots of unbeknowing women. The artist wandered around the streets and parks of Kyjov, Czechoslovakia, and whenever he spotted a woman he liked the look of, a body he could desire from a distance, he took her photograph. His work was surreptitious: it wasn’t that he asked her. To call him a “voyeur,” as does the exhibition’s title, is to put it lightly.
Tichý’s large body of photography, at first kept scattered through the floors of his home, has, since its 1980s excavation by his neighbor, psychiatrist Roman Buxbaum, caught the interest of photographic historians. These images of women, faces obscured by over-exposure, legs frequently summer-bare, have a fleeting quality that speaks of the photographer’s peripatetic snapping. The photographs possess a consistent uncleanliness—not only in that Tichý’s regular photo habit was… stalker-esque, but in that the images are unkempt and damaged, under-exposed, or in patches scathed by chemicals. They are—to use a contemporary term—utterly DIY.
Tichý worked mostly with handmade equipment, stuck together with the most frugal of materials: basic cameras, mended or altered with whatever add-ons were at hand. His ways of working, as well as his marginal position—never part of these women’s worlds, always looking on—set him up as an “outsider artist” par excellence. He failed well, making art out of scarce physical means, and selfishly, for no one but himself.
So should we, in retrospect, be suspicious of his lens? While Tichý’s portraits fit into the genre of naturalistic street photography, unposed and without models, the lack of consent for the reproduction of flesh hangs over them. The contemporary equivalent of this sly onlooker would be the blur of an inexpensive camera phone about town. But the images’ imperfection, their out-of-focus tendency, is now romanticized for Tichý’s very analog aesthetic.
Photography critic Geoff Dyer wrote in The Guardian on the occasion of Tichý’s Centre Pompidou retrospective in 2008: “[I]n spite of their abrupt cropping and haphazard framing, they contain the plausible context of desire and its frustrations and restraints of which the porno world is [...] deceptively devoid.” Like human nature, Tichý’s photographs are flawed, mis-taken, but always inquisitive. They are not pornographic, but they are voyeuristic, and their capturing of women in their supposed “natural” state has now placed them within the history of the representation of women in art. As such, Tichý’s photographs sit alongside all the other male gazes, with all the other objectified girls.
May 4–8, 2018, Park Avenue Armory