Flea Market




Flea Market by Richard Prince

An essay on the late photographer Miroslav Tichý, excerpted from 'Richard Prince: Collected Writings'.

April 21st, 2011 reset - +

I CAME ACROSS Miroslav Tichý's work in a book I found in a store on Bond St. in NYC, two three years ago.  At first I didn’t know what I was looking at.  I didn’t know if I was looking at photos that had been thrown on the floor and walked on by their taker, and scratched and gnawed and peed on by the taker’s cat.  Jeez, they looked abandoned, found filed away, discovered torn and washed up, rejected, dismissed, folded and cornered like they were used to level the leg of a wobbly table.  I didn’t have time to read the introduction, and didn’t see the portrait of the author of these “terrible” photographs.  I bought the book and put it in the bag with other photo books I bought that day.  Books by Ed Templeton, Terry Richardson, Dash Snow, Peter Sutherland, Ryan McGinley, and Roe Ethridge.  I figured I’d get around to looking at them more in a month, and had the bag of books sent upstate to my library in Neon, New York.  Twelve months later I finally opened the bag and “discovered” Tichý.  I had a revelation, baby.  I thought a young guy had taken old photos.  I should have answered my own question…DO YOU SEE WHAT I SEE?  The answer was, and always will be, no.

The book is in my lap and I’m comfortable in my chair.  I have some time and I can start at the beginning.  Everything is right when everything is wrong.  This guy is a professional amateur.  He’s ninety in body and nine in the head.  The guy never grew up.  He’s almost grown.  He reminds me of Bo Diddley.  He reminds me of Soupy Sales.  He reminds me of Swanson Dinners and bird’s-eye views.  I remember my mother demonstrating food products at the Stop & Shop, and think about Tichý watching her as she slathers a layer of Miracle Whip on a slice of Wonder Bread.  I can’t see it clearly, but I think about David Hemmings in the movieBlowup, when he’s straddling Vanessa Redgrave and fucking her with his camera.  The Japanese guys who take pictures in the park of couples having sex.  Carlo Molino’s Polaroids.  Snapshots that I found of German nudists from the Thirties in big black albums.  Almost any snapshot really…especially ones from Brownie cameras…the ones my sister took of fellow girl scouts camping and staying in tents and sleeping in white underwear and taking showers under rain barrels and singing and hugging around campfires.  Sigmar Polke’s photo essay of himself with a girlfriend, spending a weekend in a tub in Paris. Casual, passed around 3x5s for the wallet, dime store frames.  Bellocq’s Storyville.  Ruff’s cyber-porn.  Hans-Peter Feldmann’s collection of women’s knees.  My own description of the 8-track photograph I wrote in 1977. 

1)    Original copy.
2)    The rephotographed copy.
3)    The angled copy.
4)    The cropped copy.
5)    The focused copy.
6)    The out-of-focused copy.
7)    The black-and-white copy.
8)    The color copy.

I’m thinking of when you get back your vacation shots, and the ones that are overexposed and bleached out and hard to make out and maybe just your friend’s tongue is in the frame…and others that are blurred and streaked, and you say, oh, these are no good, they look like they’re suffering from the jitters and withdrawal…Christ they look like I was drunk when I took them.  Throw them in the bottom of the wastebasket.  That’s where they end up.  I’m lucky if one out of ten “turn out.”  I guess at this point I’ll say that for Tichý it’s the opposite.  He’ll say nine out of ten I’ll keep.  And that tenth one is probably completely black, blank, and dead.

No problem.  Double-exposed?  Too much sulfur?  Not enough time in the fixative?  Expiration on the film run out?  Can’t figure out depth of field?  Have no idea what ASA is?  They don’t sell Tungsten anymore?  The only thing holding your camera together is gravity and duct tape?  Getting hauled off to jail for not taking a bath and stinking up the YMCA?  Liking, and making, figurative art?  Like I said, no problem.

Shutterbug clubs.  You get together with fellow camera buffs, enthusiasts, and chip in for a model, and spend a day on a beach out near Coney Island, and snap away at an alluring half-naked girl posing in positions usually associated with the twelve months of the year.  Maybe that’s a club Tichý could have been a part of, a member, because he sure didn’t look like he belonged to the Knights of Columbus.  Wino chic.  Desolation Row.  I half expect his sweater to be part of an exhibit…right alongside images of Rat Fink.  Description of the sweater: A thing of beauty, a place to hide in and carry on protecting himself from “red” squares and advancing armies that underestimate the ten below, the ice and the freeze of a Russian night in winter.

By the way…that sweater Tichý wears? Looks like David Cronenberg made it.

What I like about Tichý is that everything is considered.  He’s not naïve.  He doesn’t make folk art, and you can’t describe his work as “outsider” art.  He doesn’t hide anything.  Shows you exactly what he’s looking at, and presents it like a love letter.  He knows his photos aren’t plugged in.  There’s no cable or satellite hooked up to his camera.  It’s like his apparatus has rabbit ears, and it’s fully functional with just three channels.  Yeah, it’s hard to get a clear picture, but with a little tinfoil around the end of the “ears” you can just about make out Elke Sommer, Kim Novak, Edie Adams, and Queen Jane.  I would bet if Tichý had stationery, the graphic for ABC television would be its logo.

Tichý doesn’t like clean, clear, Revlon-like images.  His images are stained, the “delic” is funked… there’s no makeup air-brush Clearasil, no one’s murmuring off to the side “cut”…there’s no overdub brilliant idea rewrite velvet crush teased hair.  The musician Moondog comes to mind.  The Fugs and Captain Beefheart and Lord Buckley.  I think I saw Tichý in Saugerties this weekend.  Yard sale.  I heard he summers in Preston Hollow, west of the Hudson, on the way out of Oak Hill, just north of Tannersville…(anyone thinking Rip Van Winkle?)  He sells bric-a-brac twice a month out of a van that he parks on Sundays in the hill town of Berne-Knox, just outside of Thatcher Park.  He has a complete HO train set that’s never been photographed.  He collects books on Arshile Gorky, and, when he can find them, buys reproductions of John Graham’s figure studies.  Right now he’s obsessed with images of Candy Barr.  He likes inside information.  If you don’t know it…Candy Barr was second banana to Bettie Page.  She starred in the backyard porn flick, Smart Alec, when she was fifteen.  The only surviving prints of the film look like early kinescopes…like someone deliberately put dirt and hair on the negative.  The film jumps and flickers. There’s no sound.  Later Warhol would cop a similar look and feel.  After Smart Alec Candy became the girlfriend of Jack Ruby, the guy who shot Oswald, Oswald the guy who shot Kennedy.  It’s funny the connections people make.  Turns out the Zapruder film of Kennedy getting assassinated is Tichý’s favorite film.  No mystery there.  It’s homemade, unavailable, and was broken down into stills for Life Magazine.

Sometimes Tichý’s photographs remind me of candles, and shadows, and silhouettes, ghost stories, keyholes, Jim Morrison lyrics, white bicycles, the short story by John Cheever titled “The Swimmer” (the bathing suits).  His cameras…they don’t really work do they?  He makes them himself?  If you were a prisoner jailed on Alcatraz and you were planning to escape and part of the plan was leaving behind what looked to be a camera on your bed…to fool the guard…well… Tichý would be the perfect cellmate.  His cameras are nuts! Cardboard and nuts and scotchtape. Another collage. That’s the thing about his work…it’s simple, there’s no technique or craft, no invested effort or labor, no school or diploma.  You can see yourself doing it.  Especially the way he enhances and adds on in pen and pencil, sometimes outlining the shapes and features of the figure in his photographs.  A simple black dot in the middle of an unblinking eye.  It’s enough, and anybody could have done it.  Araki with his ink.  Arnulf Rainer with his washes and drips.  The best art for me is when I see something and say to myself, yeah, I could spend an afternoon doing that.  For me, the afternoon is in Tichý’s work…

I’ve always thought the subject comes first and the technique second.  Women are why Tichý takes his walks with his camera.  They’re like his mountains, his cartoons, his squares, his zips, his dots.  Portraits would be the simplest description.  His mind is made up.  He doesn’t have to think about what to take.  He already knows what it will look like.  That kind of knowledge can be very satisfying.  The absence of conflict is powerful.  What’s in store is never a question.  The future is wearing a panty a bra a stocking eyeliner lipstick hairspray.  Tichý is excited…I think he feels like everything makes sense when he’s out photographing girls females women.  Yeah, I think he feels like they’re his.  His, because he doesn’t know them, because the camera interrupts and puts an invisible barrier between himself and their shapes and sizes and forms.  He’s rewarded when he makes an exposure.  His anonymity fuels his imagination.  And it’s what these women imagine that turns him on.

So who else would like Tichý?  Christopher Wool would, and Walter Dahn.  There are “surveillance” qualities in Tichý’s work that I think would appeal to artists like Francesca Woodman and Rossella Bellusci.  Definitely Billy Name and Anton Perich, two photographers associated with the Warhol Factory.   I don’t know…Pierre Molinier?  Certainly Wallace Berman would have devoted an issue of Semina to Tichý.  There’ s a series of paperbacks published in the early sixties by A Novel Book First Person Exclusive that has amazing cover art that I’d like to send to Tichý, as a present…he could display them next to his collections ofProvokeAvalanche and Oz…juxtapose them with his really rare copy of Jack Smith’s The Beautiful Book.  Another present to him would be David Levinthal’s Hitler Moves East.  It’s always great to receive these kinds of artist-to-artist care packages.  He probably doesn’t have a tv/dvd player, but I’ll be sure to include copies of Ed Sanders’ Mongolian Cluster Fuck, Stan Brakhage’sAnticipation of the Night, and Mike Kuchar’s Sins of the Fleshapoids.  I’m not sure where it is, but I’ll dub La Monte Young’s Dream Music…just in case Monsieur Tichý likes to listen to sustained chords droning on eternally for four and a half hours.  Care packages are like prescription drugs.  I wonder if they still go thru his mail…

Memo from Tichý: I can’t imagine being arrested or censored for what I do.  But that’s what happens.  Is what I do that important?  Who does it really affect, and does anyone really care?  Sometimes I think most people are just ignorant uninformed unconscious trapped closed-down narrow-minded, have way too much religion in them…fearful and afraid of being alone and in the end are fools.  When it comes to knowing art, people don’t.  What they know is that art is made by fugitives, criminals, and madmen.  You might not think so, but it’s true.  Most people’s idea of art is a child’s drawing on a refrigerator.  How many paintings, (original or otherwise), hang on the walls of all the houses between New York and Chicago? Seventeen.  That’s how many.  To most people art is dangerous.  And the people who make it should be locked up and dressed in pajamas.  (I’m one step ahead…I’ve worn the same slippers and bathrobe for twenty-six years.)  Yes, I take photos of women.  Why?  Because they’re beautiful.  Most of the time they’re impossibly beautiful.  And they kill me and make me feel good.  So good.  That’s what the authorities can’t stand about me.  That I feel good.  I feel good and wonderful and I go out of my mind like drugs when I’m looking thru my cardboard…They hate me for it and I don’t care.  Go ahead.  Come and get me.  What are you going to do?  Take it away?  I’ve already done it for you.

Where was I?  Does Tichý have a wife?  Kids?  A girlfriend?  Does he live with an aunt?  What do his neighbors think?  Do they think he’s a spy?  Spook?  KGB?  A double agent?  Something out of Graham Greene’s The Third Man?  Have they seen the movie Touch of Evil?  Which Orson Welles character is he?  Orson would have been a good choice to play him.  Jim Thompson could have ghosted his screenplay. Kubrick maybe the director.  The soundtrack Django Reinhardt.  Tramp.  Bum.  Dirty Old Man.  Vagrant.  Out on parole.  That’s what I hear from his landlady.  “Wouldn’t hurt a fly” is what I hear from the bartender.  Who are you going to believe?  What does Tichý believe?  Buttocks and breasts.  That’s my guess.  The outline of a bra.  And what’s in a bra?  Heaven…everything that matters.  All the rest of it…the highways, the smokestacks, the poured concrete, the public housing…the intermittent electricity, the plumber that never shows up…it can all go away with a girl on a towel in the sun turning over and lifting an arm to reveal un unshaved armpit.  Fuck the cold war.  The reincarnation of Georgia O’Keeffe.  That’s what we look for.

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