The art of bad photography: Miroslav Tichý

I stumbled upon this photo recently and was surprised to learn that what this man is holding is actually a working camera, and quite a cleverly made one at that. The photographer is Miroslav Tichý (1926-2011) of the Czech Republic, a blend of creepy old man and visionary artist. His specialty was taking surreptitious photos of young women with homemade cameras that he fashioned out of odds and ends, with a pulley system using thread spools to advance the film.

His lenses and printing equipment were deliberately imperfect–he reveled in the imperfections of his often blurry and badly printed photos. There was just something about them. He wandered around his city in shabby clothes and carrying what looked like a pretend camera. Most people probably thought he was crazy, but harmless. So they left him alone to pursue his art in his own way. He tossed his prints aside in his cluttered home and made no effort to sell, display, or even preserve them. Eventually a neighbor discovered his work and began collecting it, and eventually made a documentary about Tichý, who came to resent the attention. The New York Times has a good article about him.

In some ways Tichý seems like a good example of an outsider artist, though in fact he studied art as a younger man and had a studio where he did drawing and painting. After the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968, private property was nationalized and within a few years Tichý was evicted from his studio. That’s when he gave up on drawing and painting and turned to photography. “I saw everything in a new light,” he said. “It was a new world.”

The limitations of his cameras and the often unexpected results seem to have been an important part of this seeing, a way of preventing himself from falling into conventional photography–in the same way that some musicians develop a unique sound as a way of overcoming technical limitations in their own playing.

Here are a few examples of Tichý’s work, copied from a Google image search. They show how he would often mount his prints on cardboard or whatever he had on hand, and would sometimes draw borders around the photos. Now that I’ve pasted these, I realize that all three show the subject looking at the camera, which certainly isn’t the case with most of his work. Clearly these young women knew he was there. Did they know he had a real camera?

As for the imperfections, he said. “A mistake. That’s what makes the poetry.”

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