Paul Ickovic obituary

Paul Ickovic, who has died aged 79, belonged to a generation of humanist photographers who strove to capture the poetry in ordinary lives with a compassionate lens. His nomadic early life had taught him to reject states and borders, and for him there was no state above that of human. He roamed the world’s streets in a search for moments that would spark discomfort and joy.

His photographs were often of solitary figures, capturing their moments of introspection and alienation; a chambermaid in Prague, a diner in Boston or a Cuban waitress. Location was unimportant, for he wanted the viewer to extrapolate from a single image and recognise something of themselves – to be upset or uplifted by the reflection. Yet he was always taciturn about the meaning of his photography, once saying: “It needs no explanation; if the work is provocative, it needs only to exist.”

Though Ickovic’s work was less well known than that of contemporaries such as Josef Koudelka, Louis Faurer and Henri Cartier-Bresson, his images have been widely exhibited, notably at the International Centre of Photography in New York and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris. The Museum of Modern Art in New York and the National Gallery Prague also acquired his work, and his photographs were collected together in several books.

Ickovic’s craft was rooted in the events of 1939, when the Jewish citizens of Prague were scrambling to escape German occupation. His mother, Vera Mandel, then an 18-year-old, was put on a plane to London; her parents planned to join her but were captured and perished in concentration camps.

Around the same time a 25-year-old chemist, Eugene Ickovic, stuffed his formulas and passport into a small suitcase and travelled across Europe before joining the British Army’s Czech Brigade. On leave in Britain, at a dance, he met Vera, and they were married in 1943. A year later, in Kettering, Northamptonshire, she gave birth to Paul, who was christened Pavel.

At the end of the second world war, the family returned to Czechoslovakia, where his brother, Tomas, was born. His father set up a pharmaceuticals factory, but it soon became apparent that the occupying Russians were there to stay and so in 1949 the family left for Colombia. In Bogotá the Ickovics learned Spanish and Pavel became known as Pablo.

After a military coup in 1953, the family fled again, on a freighter bound for Canada. When they finally settled in New York in 1957, 13-year-old Pablo learned to speak English and became Paul.

At Forest Hills high school in New York his first love was jazz. He went on to study music at Queens College and, inspired by Django Reinhardt, learned the guitar. However, when he realised he would never be as good as his hero he put his guitar away. His parents gave him $1,000 to get started in life and he immediately left for India and Nepal, where he first picked up and taught himself how to use a camera.

Later he fetched up in Paris, where he took what he believed was his greatest photograph. In the instant before the doors closed on a Metro train, he saw a figure on the platform and released the shutter of his Leica without hesitation. The Phantom at Odéon, Paris, 1964 captures an enigmatic, timeless apparition. Ickovic learned that you must “shoot first, think later” as “the second frame is always a desperate attempt to recapture the first”. Faurer, who became his mentor, was effusive about the work – and Ickovic’s love of photography was cemented.

His ambition was great, but his pockets were often empty. Friends, family and patrons gave him advances, bailed him out, overlooked debts. He blagged cheap flights and sold his possessions. He packed lingerie for trips to Havana, where he could trade undies for food and hotel rooms. His wanderlust was too strong for him to remain tethered by money.

In 1969 the state of Vermont in the US became the base from which he honed his craft. On the streets and in bars Ickovic felt the pulse, arguing that “one needs to walk the gutters as much as the sidewalks in the hunt for the magic to unfold”.

That hunt came plagued with self-doubt. He would not accept mediocrity and in the early 1970s, following criticism of his work, he attempted to burn all his negatives. A girlfriend intervened, but much was lost. Nonetheless, he had the courage to pursue his vision and recognition followed. In 1977 his first book, In Transit, was published.

A self-professed vagabond, Ickovic had the roguish charm of an elegant, down-at-heel European aesthete, underpinned by his itinerant lifestyle, his husky voice and his love of beautiful objects.

Following acclaim for his 1986 collection of photographs, Kafka’s Grave & Other Stories, he moved to Sag Harbor in New York state, where he became part of the local artistic community. From there he travelled to eastern Europe to document the societal changes that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall, and in 1991 a further collection of his photographs, Safe Conduct, was published.

After that, Ickovic’s output began to wane. He was not interested in the new mediums of colour film or digital photography, and began to concentrate his energies on producing exhibitions of his work and on painting.

He tried life on Long Island and then in Amherst, Massachusetts, until, at the age of 72, he placed his precious prints and notebooks into his prized possession, his father’s small suitcase, and moved into a ruined apartment in the medieval centre of Ljubljana, Slovenia. He turned his home into a bohemian palace and for a time was happy.

A retrospective in France opened at the Bibliothèque Nationale in 2021, but due to Covid-19 the number of visitors was small and press coverage was limited, while the accompanying monograph, Ickovic, a book he had poured his heart and soul into, languished. The disappointment prompted him to make one final move, to Prague.

There his health deteriorated and severe back pain prevented him from walking the streets with his camera. However, he maintained his interest in the human condition to the end.

Ickovic was married and divorced twice. He is survived by two sons, Nicholas, from his second marriage, to the model Simona Zborilova, and Cristian, from a later relationship with the art gallery owner Karin Sanders, and his brother.

Paul (Pavel) David Ickovic, photographer, born 16 March 1944; died 23 May 2023