Julia Margaret Cameron and Miroslav Tichý

The work of both Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–1879) and Miroslav Tichý could be described as sui generis—to say that their art is “of its own kind” is to wryly acknowledge that it once sat outside the boundaries of serious art. Cameron and Tichý’s common story, separated by a century, is that of most artists: They expect recognition, but it’s not in the cards.

They didn’t fail for lack of trying. Cameron exhibited and marketed her photographs through the venerable art dealer Paul Colnaghi in London; in her lifetime, eighty of her prints went to the Victoria and Albert Museum. Tichý attended the art academy in Prague, and exhibited in Brno in the 1950s. But ambition didn’t count; Tichý’s ornery disposition meant he wouldn’t or couldn’t grasp the political realities for modern artists in Czechoslovakia during the cold war; Cameron never bowed to the nineteenth-century idea of photography—that its point was the depiction of fact with utmost technique—or the privilege of men to impose it. True, Cameron had connections to Victorian literati and celebrities, including her neighbor Alfred, Lord Tennyson, whom she photographed, but never mind that. After a visit, Lewis Carroll commented: “In the evening Mrs. Cameron and I had a mutual exhibition of photographs. Hers are all taken purposely out of focus—some are very picturesque—some merely hideous—however, she talks of them as if they were triumphs of art.” For Tichý, bucking the system meant prison or a mental ward. But eventually, recognition came to each of them.

Tichý “renovated” broken Russian cameras with toilet-paper rolls and lenses from children’s glasses; some cameras he built from scratch. He stalked his subjects—women and adolescent girls—sneaking photographs in his hometown of Kyjov. He did not go unnoticed, but his beggarly appearance and wacky cameras led his subjects to believe he was so delusional that he couldn’t really be taking pictures. The resulting work is a staccato style of eccentric, sometimes poetic mannerisms, brought off by unaffected techniques largely decided by his home-made cameras and artless printing.

Tichý’s raw innocence is what the Starn Twins (remember them?) tried to manufacture with artifice. Eventually, through the promotional work of Roman Buxbaum, Tichý, age seventy-nine, won the 2005 Prix de la découverte (Discovery Award) at the Rencontres de la Photographie in Arles; an exhibition at the Kunsthaus Zurich followed that year. Of course, the psychiatric abuse he suffered promoted secondary and chronic abnormalities, so it’s hard to say how to credit his success; are we admiring Tichý’s creative eye, psychiatric symptoms, or both?

One photograph—the works are all untitled and thought to have been made between 1960 and 1995—presents a young woman in a bikini posing for Tichý’s tatty camera; she relaxes against the thin wire fence he would otherwise use as a blind. Telegraphing the sexuality the photographer so obviously desired, her expression is haughty but compassionate. Reminiscent of figures in Cameron pictures, she stands in as the allegory of acceptance, within reach, yet. . . . She personifies the triumph that at first eluded yet ultimately found both Cameron and Tichý. They wished for success, but when it was withheld they moved on, both ultimately giving up photography. Did they want the triumphs of art as badly as we retrospectively want it for them? Did history really allow them to walk an aesthetic tightrope for photography, or does it just add up to circumstance; Tichý’s years of suffering institutional cruelty, and all the indifference Cameron endured? I wonder.

Ronald Jones