One of Miroslav’s many cameras
When you first look at this, you may think it’s just a toy fashioned by a child in a kindergarten school class.
But this, and many other such contraptions, have been built by a man whose name I certainly had never heard before, Miroslav Tichy (pronounced “tikki”).
Born in 1926 in Czechoslovakia, where his father worked as a tailor and other as a secretary. He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague and then returned home, taking up painting and drawing as his main subjects of interest.
Very early on in his adult life, Miroslav decided that the strict rules and regulations that controlled everything and everyone in his country were not for him, and he sought the company of other similar-minded people, all of whom happened to be involved in the art movements, namely Brno Five, a group of painters who broke away from the State-sanctioned regimen, which decreed that all artists were forbidden from drawing or painting nude models, instead replacing female models with men in working overalls! Miroslav and his friends were not having any of that nonsense, so they decided to carry on working on their own terms, in their own, time-honoured ways, which of course drew attention to them from the people running the country.
Because of this, and possibly because of his flouting of public and social etiquette, he was closely monitored by the State as a non-conformist dissident. Soon after, the powers of his country ruled that all dissidents be institutionalised, and it us thus that he was placed in a prison, in his case, a mental prison, as the authorities thought he was a madman.
He was to be thrown into such institutions more than once in his long life.
Miroslav’s workshop equipment
Miroslav’s last days in his cramped 1 bedroom apartment
On those occasions when he was out of prisons, he continued to paint, only stopping to take up his other interest, photography, in the 1960s. Working for an old wooden shed in his garden, he constructed unique, handmade cameras, sometimes cannibalising old junk cameras, but mainly making his own designs up from scratch, using cardboard, wood and lenses that he actually laboriously ground himself in his garden shed!
Not caring about his physical appearance, he walked the streets wearing tattered clothing and long, uncut hair and beard, his crude camera in hand and a strict limit he set himself of no more than 3 rolls of film a day, searching out shots to capture.
Initially he had concentrated on shooting street scenes or landscapes, but for some reason only known to him, he changed abruptly from those subjects to women. If you look at the majority of his photos, you’ll see that all of them depict ladies and ladies’ bodies, in other words, their legs, faces, backsides etc, which today would make him a stalker or worse, earn him a place in any number of police station cells.
But if we instead look closely at his work, you can see a semblance of intuition and drama, where he is trying to tell a story, albeit a story about each woman whom he shoots…..some shots show women talking subversely, some gossiping, and generally sharing private moments of friendship amongst each other. Some ladies struck elegant, deliberate poses for him if they saw him taking their shots, thinking that the cameras he carried were nothing but toys, but little did they know! In my mind, this doesn’t make him a weirdo, but I say that looking at his work, not searching his mind…..some say he was mentally disturbed.
Whatever, it seems that he was well-known in his city, and most likely the locals grew accustomed to his presence and his unorthodox ways, such as appearing at the town swimming baths to take his photos (he wasn’t allowed to go into the swimming baths, so he took his shots from the outside looking in, his lens poked through the wire fence, which you can see in some of his photos, adding a taste of forbidden fruit to his works). The truth is most likely that people regarded him as an eccentric, carrying cameras that obviously didn’t work, being made of materials you can find in any home….old cardboard shoe boxes, cardboard toilet paper rolls, lenses he made himself out of plexiglass and ground with toothpaste and cigarette ash.
His photographs are also totally unique. It is said that he always encouraged people to throw his prints onto the ground and walk upon them. Some of his prints show damaged surface layers, blobs, dried chemical markings…some are dog-eared, torn, scratched, some have their outlines drawn over with pen or pencil. It is things like this that have led some observers to say he had a mental problem. I don’t call it that….just look at the world’s genuises…all of them without doubt had their eccentric mannerisms, so is Miroslav any different?
Miroslav’s work is the main focus ever since he was “discovered” a few years ago. Obviously his subjects are all female, but again, if looked at closely, there is movement, contrast and composition at work in them. Professional photographers sometimes poo-poo his work, saying it’s all out of focus, vignetted, badly composed, bugged by dust inside the camera, poor developing technique and hundreds of other excuses. But in answer to detractors, Miroslav was known to have said “A mistake? That’s what makes the poetry!”
But what about his equipment? If anybody looked at his garden shed-cum-workshop nowadays, you wouldn’t think that cameras and photographic processing was going on there. The workplace was strewn with odds and ends….empty bottles, tins, cardboard, wood, wire, odd sheets of metal.
An example of a typical camera he would make would be a small wooden box, with road asphalt used as sealant to block light entering, a small thin piece of plywood as a shutter, operated by a pulley system using empty cotton reels and dress-maker’s elastic. For a lens, he would sometimes use old spectacle lenses, or as mentioned earlier, cut them out of Plexiglas and grind them himself.
To take some of his shots unnoticed, he used rudimentary but functional telephoto lenses, made them out of cardboard or plastic pipes. And his enlarger with which he produced his prints, was just a few pieces of sheet metal 2 pieces of wooden slats from a fence, a light bulb and a tin can.
Developing and printing was all done very carelessly it seems. He only ever made one print from each negative, and if he liked it, he would paste it onto cardboard, sometimes outlining the subjects with a pen or pencil or adding artistic designs around the photo.
Lacking any room to store his shots, he would stack them together into piles, tie them up, and throw them in odd corners of the space he had, open to rats, mice, insects and his own shoe prints.
So he thus roamed his hometown of Kyjov, taking shots that can only seriously be taken by a person who has an artistic eye.
And it is rather ironic, that a “foundation” sprouted up suddenly when people in high places started admiring the work, a foundation purporting to help arts and support Miroslav and his works. This claim has been emphatically denied by Jana Hebnarova, who grew up with Miroslav as their neighbour. Miroslav’s work was apparently taken from him under the guise of “protecting and preserving” it, by a Dr Roman Buxbaum, another local neighbour……Miroslav was known to be fond of a drink or two, and a few judicious drinks at the right time sealed Miroslav’s signatures on hurriedly-drafted documents allowing Buxbaum to be the only person permitted to hold the work.
Today, in our days of pin-sharp digitallly-perfected images, his work has brought a suddenly refreshing breath of fresh air to the scene, and his shots are now found in many prized collections all over the globe.
Miroslav died in 2011, without receiving a single penny for his work which by then had been shown in the USA and other parts of the world.
Miroslav Tichý – October 2009
“”First of all, you have to have a bad camera..then, if you want to be famous, you must do something more badly than anybody in the entire world.”
Marislov Tichy (1926-2011)….a forgotten genius of our times!
all photos courtesy flickr.com, unless otherwise stated