The Primitive Cameras of Czechoslovakia’s Unkempt Peeping Photographer

Tichy's home made camera
Image: Miroslav Tichý via Foundation Tichý Oceán
One of Miroslav Tichý’s homemade cameras

Constructed out of cardboard, tape and Plexiglas, this camera may look like something a child might make for fun. And if someone was spotted out and about trying to take photographs with it, whomever was behind the lens could well be dismissed as somewhat delusional. However, the shaggy-haired, bearded man dressed in clothes that looked as rough and ready as the cameras he wielded actually knew exactly what he was doing.

Long lens camera
Image: Miroslav Tichý via Foundation Tichý Oceán
Tichý holding one of his cameras

Miroslav Tichý, who died in 2011 at the age of 84, had his own particular philosophy when it came to artistic photography. According to Tichý’s friend, biographer and neighbor Roman Buxbaum, Tichý said, “First of all, you have to have a bad camera! If you want to be famous, you have to do something so badly that no one else in the world does it as badly!”

Woman in painted frame
Image: Miroslav Tichý via Foundation Tichý Oceán
Photograph of a woman in one of Tichý’s painted frames

While Tichý’s cameras certainly weren’t state of the art, they did work. Tichý made them himself using scraps of materials such as paper tubes, drainpipes, asphalt, elastic, and empty thread spools. The spools and elastic were used to create the rewind mechanism, which was connected to the shutter.

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Cardboard telephoto lens
Image: Miroslav Tichý via Foundation Tichý Oceán
The thread spools and elastic are clearly visible in this shot.

The shutters were simply plywood with holes cut into them. Tichý would put a number of lenses in the telephoto lens bodies, which were made from paper rolls or drainpipes. The cameras were then painted, after which they were hung from his neck by a piece of string.

Girls playing
Image: Miroslav Tichý via Foundation Tichý Oceán
Two little girls playing

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To create his lenses, Tichý used a knife to cut out pieces of Plexiglas. Next, he ground the lenses using first rough sandpaper and then progressively finer varieties. Finally, he made a mixture of toothpaste and cigarette ash, which he used to polish the Plexiglas lenses until they were just right.

Woman's face
Image: Miroslav Tichý via Foundation Tichý Oceán
Smudges are clearly visible on this close-up of a woman’s face.

The fact that Tichý was able to create his working cameras and lenses this way is testament to his technical skills – however crude his methods may have been. And while the cameras might not have taken the clearest photographs, this was the way Tichý wanted it.

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Back of a Tichy camera
Image: Miroslav Tichý via Foundation Tichý Oceán
This camera has a bottle cap as a winder.

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Not only did Tichý make his own cameras, but he also constructed his own photographic processing equipment. By combining boards and a couple of slats taken from his fence, he was able to create his own enlarger. Tichý kept the makeshift enlarger in his courtyard, which housed the darkroom.

Woman in striped dress
Image: Miroslav Tichý via Foundation Tichý Oceán
A woman in a striped dress, who very likely didn’t know she was being photographed from behind

In order to focus his pictures, Tichý joined the wooden slats to sheet metal so that they could be moved in and out. He put a light bulb into a can to create the lamp box, while the lens came from an old discarded camera.

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Woman's back
Image: Miroslav Tichý via Foundation Tichý Oceán
Another of Tichý’s cardboard frames

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Miroslav Tichý was born in 1926 in the Czechoslovakian village of Nětčice in the town of Kyjov. His father was a tailor by trade, and his mother was employed as a solicitor’s secretary. Tichý believed that to prove himself independent in the modern world, he needed to make his own equipment. Similarly, his art is said to represent the quest for freedom pursued by Czech artists and students around the time of the 1968 Soviet invasion.

Lots of tape
Image: Miroslav Tichý via Foundation Tichý Oceán
It’s difficult to believe that some of these cameras actually worked.

Despite what his improvised cameras and seemingly haphazard style of photography may suggest, Tichý studied formally, at Prague’s Academy of Fine Arts. However, after the Czechoslovakian communist takeover of 1948, he quit, rather than conform to the school’s new socialist artistic conventions: instead of drawing female figures, for example, students were now expected to depict workers in overalls.

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Camera parts
Image: Miroslav Tichý via Foundation Tichý Oceán
This camera appears to be made from old tins.

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Tichý’s individualistic style and eccentric behavior did not fit in at all with the communist agenda of the time. And after finishing his compulsory stint in the military, he returned to stay with his parents in Kyjov. Interestingly, before taking up photography, Tichý was a modernist style painter.

Homemade processing equipment
Image: Miroslav Tichý via Foundation Tichý Oceán
Tichý’s homemade enlarger

In light of Tichý’s non-conformist ideas, the government viewed him as a dissident who needed to be corrected. To try to achieve this, time and again between 1957 and 1959 he was sent to a state-run psychiatric clinic. He was also strategically taken to the clinic on national communist holidays in order to prevent him from being seen at public events.

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Long haired woman
Image: Miroslav Tichý via Foundation Tichý Oceán
A woman with long hair takes on a ghostly appearance.

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Yet the state’s attempts to “normalize” Tichý were not successful. In fact, if anything, he became even more of a maverick. During the 1960s, he started growing his hair, wearing shabby clothes, and taking his black and white photographs. And when the government evicted him from his art studio, Tichý gave up painting and concentrated on photography instead.

Tichy's processing equipment
Image: Miroslav Tichý via Foundation Tichý Oceán
Tichý’s enlarger and two homemade cameras

Wandering about Kyjov with his rudimentary cameras, Tichý took photographs of the town’s women and girls. They regarded the unkempt artist as a strange yet harmless character, despite his habit of photographing women mostly without their awareness. Some of those whom he pointed his camera at didn’t even think it worked.

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Women laying in grass
Image: Miroslav Tichý via Foundation Tichý Oceán
Women lying on the grass

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Nonetheless, Tichý told Roman Buxbaum that his motives for photographing women were strictly artistic. “A woman, for me, is a motif,” he said. “Nothing else interests me. I didn’t run wild with women. Even when I see a woman I like, and maybe I could have tried to make contact, I realize that I’m not actually interested.”

Holding a Tichy camera
Image: Miroslav Tichý via Foundation Tichý Oceán
Tichý holds one of his cameras with an extended lens.

The photographs Tichý took were developed in a very irregular manner, sometimes on torn scraps of photographic paper. They were then often soiled with coffee or rum, trodden on, folded, or nibbled at by rats and silverfish. All of this was considered part of the creative process. If the photos survived, they might be pasted onto handmade cardboard frames. And sometimes Tichý would draw on the images or tint them.

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Women running
Image: Miroslav Tichý via Foundation Tichý Oceán
A group of women running

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Until 2004, Tichý worked in relative obscurity, sharing his photographs only with Buxbaum. However, well-known art curator Harald Szeemann then used some of Tichý’s photographs in an exhibition at the Seville Biennial. That year, Buxbaum also showed a short movie on Tichý titled Miroslav Tichý: Tarzan Retired, and the Czechoslovakian artist began to receive wider recognition.

Miroslav Tichy
Image: Miroslav Tichý via Foundation Tichý Oceán
A striking self-portrait

Tichý’s photographs have been described by The New York Times art reviewer Karen Rosenberg as “mildly disturbing” but also “intensely fascinating.” They do present an interesting and unique view of life in a Czechoslovakian town from an artist’s perspective.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

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