Sunday, April 18, 2010

International Center of Photography

2/20/2010, Saturday (continued)

International Center for Photography ......................... 1.5 hrs
ICP Education Gallery ............................................ 20 min

International Center for Photography ......................... $12 each
ICP Education Gallery ............................................ Free

Deep in midtown Manhattan lies a plaza so ugly its been nominated as one of the worst public spaces in the world. The implausibly named Grace Plaza consists of an enormous barren white concrete slab boxed in by the windowless north façade of the WR Grace building, which looms like huge, blank prison walls 50 stories high on two sides of the plaza. During NYC’s seedy days, Grace Plaza was an infamous drug spot; today it's a haven for smokers, and no one else. Yet below this hideous ashtray of a square lurks the International Center for Photography (ICP), a prestigious school and unique museum.

ICP was founded in 1974 by Cornell Capa, a well-known Hungarian photographer, to preserve the legacy of his brother, the legendary Robert Capa (see picture above; 1913 –1954). Robert Capa was a 20th century combat photographer considered one the greatest photojournalists of all time. He covered five different wars: the Spanish Civil War, the Second Sino-Japanese War, World War II across much of Europe, the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and the First Indochina War. He took insane risks getting shots of actual combat, becoming famous for photographing soldiers as they fell beside him in the Spanish Civil War and swimming ashore on D-Day to photograph the second assault wave on Omaha Beach. His lover, Gerda Taro, also a photojournalist, died in a battle while they were covering the Spanish Civil War, and Robert Capa was killed by a landmine while photographing a troop advance under fire, literally dying with his camera in his hand.

In keeping with its roots, the museum often mounts thought-provoking shows on divisive, sometimes violent topics such as gangs in L.A. and the war in Iraq. This day’s exhibits were no exception to the ICP museum’s almost pugnacious love of controversy. Can a photography museum have an “in your face” attitude?  We think so. 

The largest exhibit was devoted to the first American showing of the eccentric, possibly insane Czech photographer Miroslav Tichy. Tichy’s photographs appear to be badly damaged snapshots of girls and young woman in streets and public parks, going about their business and mostly unaware of the camera. The photos seem clumsy, often showing only pieces of a scene, like a woman’s foot or backside, and are blurry, badly printed and in terrible condition: battered, dog eared, scratched and water damaged. The juxtaposition of clearly sexual images, the surreptitious nature of the photography, and the trashed condition of the photos give the pictures an oddly dreamy but eerie quality. One reviewer called it an “uncanny fusion of eroticism, paranoia and deliberation” and it’s both captivating and highly unsettling. Obviously this was Paul’s favorite exhibit, EVER. He liked it so much he bought the Tichy exhibition catalogue from the gift shop, a first for us.

The exhibit takes on more depth as you learn more about Tichy from a film playing in the exhibit, made by one of his neighbors. Tichy studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague and was for a time a celebrated painter. He was a nonconformist and a former member of the Brono Five, a group of painters who broke with the state-sanctioned Socialist Realism. Yet he also has a history of mental illness, and has been in and out of metal institutions for most of his life. He clearly considers his photographs to be a form of political protest, yet his monologues are not those of a completely sane person. Some things are clear however. The amateur look of his art is deliberate, and the product of a carefully orchestrated series of missteps that begin with crude, homemade cameras. These cameras are on display at the exhibit and are made out of rubbish, fashioned from materials like shoeboxes, toilet-paper rolls and Plexiglas, the lenses polished with toothpaste and cigarette ash.  The cameras look like trash, explaining why a lot of his subjects don’t seem to know that they are being photographed. As he says in the film, “If you want to be famous, you must do something more badly than anybody in the entire world”.

Tichy had a set routine for his photography.  Allowing himself three rolls of film a day, he wandered the streets of his town performing his own personal version of the Czech government’s surveillance program.  He wore a uniform of sorts, an unbelievably ratty coat that Tichy elaborately unraveled.  Taking his trash cameras with him, he cruised the same bus stops, parks and swimming pools everyday, looking for young women to photograph.  Looking at the photographs, the first thing that came to my mind was that if he tried that in America, he would be arrested as a potential molester, and that’s exactly what happened in Czechoslovakia.  He was repeatedly thrown into jails and mental hospitals, beaten and starved, but always released as a harmless old coot.  Upon his release, he would repeat his behavior until his next arrest.  According to his neighbors, his arrests were routine, always happening before holidays or official visits to remove a potential embarrassment.  As we left the exhibit Paul and I were still unsure how much of his art was political protest and how much was insanity, and where the line was between the two.

The other photography exhibits at the ICP are less radical today, but when they were first taken they were shocking.  “Surrealism, Photography, and Paris” was a collection of surrealist photographers of Paris in the 20’s and 30’s.  At the time, these artists were the height of the avante guarde, using fragmented and manipulated images to project a frenetic disjointed view of urban life in a rapidly modernizing city.  Many of the pictures were of prostitutes and dance halls, exposing the seedy dark side of Paris.  Others contrast new and old parts of the city.  In a 1934 picture of the Eiffel Tower, it soars against the night sky with electric lights illuminating its corners.  The tower is a beacon of the future, and in the foreground the silhouette of an old brick chimney is visible as a sign of a rapidly disappearing past.  Once again, this was more Paul’s type of art than mine, and it highlighted more of Paul’s favorite artist, Man Ray (although Tichy and Tino Sehgal are rapidly challenging that coveted spot).  We saw an entire exhibition on Man Ray at the Jewish Museum, and, for me at least, he does not improve with repetition.

Another exhibit highlighted the work of Alan B. Stone.  In many ways this exhibit echoed Tichy’s.  Stone was a gay photographer in Montreal in the 50’s and 60’s, a time when it was very dangerous to be gay.  The walls of this exhibit are lined with Montreal newspapers of the time, featuring stories of beatings of homosexuals and raids of gay bars, underlining the risks that Stone was taking in his work (although its all in French so we had to take the curator's word for it).  Stone was a purveyor of beefcake, specializing in pictures of male pin-ups, theoretically for women.  More risky were his photographs of his native city, where he wandered, Tichy-like, looking for good-looking young men to photograph.  The walls of this exhibit are lined with well-muscled construction workers, shirtless and glistening, swinging heavy hammers, and young nubile dockworkers flinging heavy ropes to each other.  Strangely, Paul did not find this photography as compelling as I.

The last exhibit was one Paul and I stumbled upon by accident.  The address we had for ICP puts it under Grace Plaza, but what is actually under the plaza is the ICP School.  (The museum is across the street.)  This school is one of the world's most extensive and best-equipped schools of photography, offering 400 courses every year, and it exhibits a constant rotation of student works.  We recommend taking a look at the (free) student gallery if you are visiting the ICP museum.  While we were visiting there were photos from several photojournalist projects from around the world, and it was worth a look to see the next generation of budding Robert Capas.

Images in this post, from the top: Leonore Fini, 1933 by Dora Maar; photograph of Robert Capa by Gerda Taro; 3 untitled images by Miroslav Tichy; one of Tichy's cameras; ; Eiffel Tower, 1934 by Ilse Bing; Molin Rouge, 1933 by Ilse Bing; Untitled, by Alan B. Stone 1964.


  1. The ICP looks very interesting. It took a while for people to realize that a photo could do more than show a subject, however well posed, or an action shot, however fast the shutter. Of course, the photographers who "do more" are often insane, homosexual, alcoholic, or drug addicts. But the case of the poet T.S. Eliot shows that you can be totally rad yet wear a three-piece suit and part your hair down the middle.
    Museum food has truly improved, but the prices are still eye-popping. - Mike

  2. The ICP is the best sinle-focus museum in NYC. I love the student work as much as the main museum. If you have not seen the "mexican Suitcase" you need to.