For more than 40 years, Boris Mikhailov has used photography to document and come to grips with the turmoil of life under the Soviets, and after the Soviets. In this heavy-weight retrospective book, we are able to trace both Mikhailov’s personal history as well as the evolving photographic techniques he used in so many ways in his efforts to try to explain, document and understand the world around him.
Several illuminating essays accompany the photographs, and provide historical, emotional, and intellectual contexts that add a richness of understanding to the massive body of work.
The introduction to an accompanying exhibition at ICA Boston reads: "Boris Mikhailov's images, captured over more than 35 years, bring to life one of the most tumultuous chapters of the 20th century: the height, decline, and fall of the Soviet Union and its disturbing aftermath. Yet as they chart this extraordinary history, they also express the complex emotions and intellectual subtlety of a powerful artist. Mikhailov's work ranges from the covert transgressions of a critical mind under a totalitarian regime to the tender depictions of the intimate life of his friends, his family and himself.”
As in the best of any kind of retrospective, one is treated to a variety of styles and approaches. There are staged photos, surreptitious street photography, jokes, puns, pairings.
What remains constant throughout is Mikhailov’s unflinching eye, and his sense of humor and compassion, outrage and rebellion.
At one stage in the 1970s, he took to hand-coloring b/w photos to accentuate a pop sensibility, and to wryly mimic the way Soviet propaganda artificially brightened very dreary, gray life events. But the faces and postures do not lie. On one photo he adds in handwriting: “Everything here is so gray in gray that there isn’t even anything to color.”
Larissa Harris writes, “The twenty-six photographic series that Ukrainian photographer Boris Mikhailov made between the late 1960s and 2002 (all but three of which are represented in this retrospective) include several varieties of homemade antidote to official Soviet visual culture as well as negotiations—some shaky, some masterful—with the many new ‘freedoms’ of the post-Soviet world. Though the series vary enormously in format, technique, and strategy, Mikhailov's interests in the individual rather than the type, immediacy rather than distance, and the everyday rather than the ceremonial remain constant throughout, constituting a direct challenge to what Boris Groys might call ‘the Soviet promotion machine.’”
Ironically, Mikhailov was never caught, censored or punished for his work during the Soviet regime. But when he published a book titled Case History, documenting the terrible and desperate conditions of the homeless in the late 1990s “after” the Soviets, he was seen as a traitor, going too far, exposing too much ugliness, sorrow and suffering.
Anne von der Heiden explains a bit of what else was disturbing about the work in Case History:
“Besides playing the journalistic gesture, there is another moment of particular importance: Mikhailov has the homeless pose for him, and he stages scenes with them. Time and again, he asked them to re-enact well-known scenes from Christian iconography… an imago is created in this moment of repose as if the viewer is supposed to reconstruct in retrospect the creation of this scene, its history.”
This kind of commentary helps the reader to see these rather mundane-looking photos as part of a larger context. A long, thought-provoking interview with the photographer rounds out the collection, proving that the photographer is as articulate in words as he is with his camera.
Despite the large number of photographs that are beautifully printed, and the generosity and insight of the supporting texts, this retrospective seems somehow incomplete. Small groupings of photographs are called upon to stand for entire multi-year bodies of work. One photograph stands in for a whole book. Rather than satisfying completely, it serves only to whet the appetite. The interested reader is then drawn to dig deeper, to go beyond this volume. But this is definitely a good place to start.