Internationally renowned “voyeur” photographer Miroslav Tichý dies at the age of 84

Miroslav Tichý, dubbed by some the enfant terrible of Czech photography, died on Tuesday in Kyjov, the south Moravian village where he lived and took his pictures. Many of them are candid shots of Kyjov’s women and girls, and because of their erotic nature, some have labeled his work “voyeur” photography. Nonetheless, Tichý’s biography, combined with the unique, lackadaisical style of his pictures, has made him an international art sensation.

Miroslav Tichý, photo: CTKMiroslav Tichý, photo: CTK Photographer Miroslav Tichý did not rise to fame until he was nearly 80 years old. His former neighbor Roman Buxbaum, who had left Kyjov and moved to Switzerland, introduced Tichý’s work to a broader audience via a collection of photos and a documentary film in 2004. Tichý, who lived the life of a recluse and studiously avoided the limelight, severed all ties with Buxbaum in 2009. He refused to speak to the media or attend openings – and his image of being a hermit as well as his shoddy appearance may have contributed to the allure of his art, says photographer and art historian Tomáš Pospěch.

“Miroslav Tichý was also a phenomenon in the past five years, because he did not want to display his photographs but his work was shown at galleries worldwide nonetheless. That actually raises interesting questions about art and ownership, and to what extent the artist can control their work.”

Tichý studied at Prague’s Academy of the Fine Arts and produced paintings as well as sculptures. For his photographs, he opted for a unique approach: He used remarkable do-it-yourself cameras, making lenses out of everyday materials, for example beer bottles. As a result, his photos were often underexposed or out of focus, challenging the classical rules of composition. Even with the finished prints, Tichý ignored all conventions and deliberately mistreated his own work, often leaving the pictures out in the rain.

The eerie quality of his shots, taken between the 1960s and 1980s, and the fact that they most often feature unsuspecting girls and women going about their business in the village of Kyjov, have led some to call him a “pervert” “madman” or “voyeur.” Is there more to his art than pure voyeurism? Tomáš Pospěch believes there is.

“I do think that voyeurism comes first in his work, and in the various documentaries about him, he says so himself. And he most likely preferred his sculpting and painting work to his photography, which I think was more of a hobby for him. But I don’t mind that element.

“For me, the photos have a flavor of spontaneous authenticity, of the 1980s, of afternoons spent at the lake near a small town, and of the socialist era of Czechoslovak history. And for me they are very important because they brought up a new dialogue in the world of art photography. They refreshed this joy of looking through the lens, the joy of taking pictures, the fascination with the technical side of photography. I enjoy the pictures, because they break the traditional technical rules, the traditional dogma of how to take a picture.”

Tichý’s work was the subject of a recent exhibit at Prague’s Old Town Hall – the first time his photos were shown in the Czech capital – which just closed in early March. His work has been shown internationally, in Germany, France, Spain and the US. It is not certain what will become of the pictures that Tichý owned after his death. The reclusive artist himself most likely would have preferred for them to remain tucked away in a drawer somewhere in Kyjov.