At Presentation House Gallery, North Vancouver, until January 14

On a video monitor at the rear of the gallery, a toothless old man with long, greasy hair, a scruffy beard, and filthy, tattered clothing is talking about his approach to taking photographs. “I have never done anything other than let time pass,” he says.

The dirty old man is Miroslav Tichí½. Born in 1926 in Moravia (now part of the Czech Republic) and educated at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague between 1945 and 1948, he has lived an extremely marginal existence, most of it in his hometown of Kyjov. There, he painted and drew in an early modernist style and then, from the 1960s through the 1980s, took thousands of photographs, 120 of which are on view at Presentation House Gallery. His images are captivating in their anti-institutional aesthetic, their highly evocative imperfections. In their subject matter, however, they are unsettling, even distressing.

Tichí½’s black-and-white photos are characterized by blurred passages of darkness and light, fuzzy figures and indistinct objects, along with blotching, fading, scratches, and discoloration. These effects are the intentional results of his crude, handmade photographic equipment and his concertedly offhand darkroom techniques.

His prints have been additionally distressed with folds, tears, and stains. They’ve been walked on, slept on, tossed on the floor, thrown out the window, abruptly cropped. Tichí½ has mounted some of his images on old pieces of coloured paper or matted them with dirty and tattered cardboard, which he has then embellished with lines, scribbles, and squiggles. In the documentary on view at the gallery, made by his friend Roman Buxbaum, Tichí½ talks about the apparent flaws in his photos as “poetry”—and indeed, they are. Romantic poetry.

His images have a fugitive quality; the figures captured here are ghostly, haunting, strangely luminous. “People”¦are modeled and modulated by light as if apparitions,” writes PHG curator Helga Pakasaar in the show’s brochure. The compulsively decorated mats align the work with outsider art, and the prints themselves evoke early, unsophisticated photographic techniques. But the work also resonates with that aspect of contemporary photography that embraces handmade, pinhole, and toy cameras and the low-tech distortions and leakages those devices deliver.

Tichí½ has taken a few photographs of the streets, monuments, and parks of his hometown. By far the majority of his subjects, however, are women. He ogles them endlessly, catching them alone or in pairs or groups, standing in doorways, walking on paved paths, working behind bars, sitting on park benches. Many of the figures are wearing bathing suits, sunbathing in parks or beside the municipal pool. Although a few women look directly at the camera, most are taken unawares. Tichí½ has drawn on some of the images, tracing with pencil or pen the curve of a leg, breast, or buttock.

There seems to be tacit agreement in curatorial and critical circles that Tichí½’s photos must be viewed within the context of his life and times. This runs oddly counter to postmodern thought, which scorns the cult of the individual and the romantic cliché of the alienated artist. In Tichí½’s case, however, much is made of his romantic individuality in the face of repressive political conditions. The story goes that he refused to accommodate the decades-long grip of Communism upon his native land. That his social and creative nonconformity caused him to be repeatedly incarcerated in jails and psychiatric hospitals. That he stopped bathing, that he lived alone in poverty and squalor, that he walked the streets, parks, and squares of Kyjov, his camera hidden beneath his coat, taking self-assigned 100 photos a day. And that he was belatedly discovered by the curatorial establishment and pitched into a world of unsought acclaim.

Much of the biographical framing of his work, however, glosses over an obvious fact: his photos are creepily voyeuristic. Tichí½ frequently appears to be stalking his unnamed subjects, so much so that voyeurism is folded into his aesthetic—the mediations of windows and fences, the images shot from behind or above the subject, or through a telephoto lens. Feminism’s critique of the patriarchal attitudes that have prevailed throughout the history of western art, especially the objectification of women, has been curiously discounted here. Yes, Tichí½ was a voyeur, but look, he went to jail! He was poor! He was hungry! He really, really suffered for his right to fetishize women through the lens of his improvised camera.