International Center of Photography/Steidl, 328 pp., $75.00
When Diane Arbus was first becoming widely known, at the time of her retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1972, viewers absorbed her pictures with the knowledge that she had taken her life the year before, and this painful fact intensified their already disturbing, even frightening, nature. At least at the time, the unavoidable fact of Arbus’s biography was a key aspect of why her pictures seemed different from those of most other photographers. Communicating a sense of someone who repeatedly needed to test herself in confrontational situations, they appeared to spring from a level of personal necessity that had little to do with photography itself. Yet in time her ultimate effect was on the art of photography. Her pictures left the impression that the medium had rarely before been so sensitive a recorder of a person’s psychic fears, and in this she altered our sense of what a photographer can do.
Something of Arbus’s indirectly revolutionary power can be felt in the work of Miroslav Tichý. Not that the pictures of the eighty-four-year-old Tichý, who is Czech and is currently the subject of a retrospective at the International Center of Photography in New York, are anything like Arbus’s. In many ways, they are the complete opposite. Arbus bored in on material that most people want to avoid, whereas Tichý’s images, which are almost exclusively of women and at first sight can appear to be so many blurry, technically dubious snapshots, are, in effect, about not boring in.
To a degree that has hardly been felt before, Tichý makes photography a monitor of the nebulous and evanescent—of flashes of beauty in everyday life that go by so quickly we are not sure we have really seen them. He can make us think of Arbus, though, because, like her, he seems to have been driven to make his pictures and to have thought of the camera, in the process, as little more than a handy tool. Yet his images, like her’s, expand our idea of the medium’s power.
Miroslav Tichý was essentially unknown, even in his own country, until 2004, when his pictures turned up in an art fair in Spain. Since then he has understandably become one of the most talked-about figures in photography. The setting of his work is Kyjov, his hometown, a small Moravian city near the Austrian border. There, between roughly the late 1960s and some point in the 1980s—he doesn’t appear to have done any picture-taking since then—he roamed the public places within walking distance of his house, photographing women of all ages, though primarily girls …