Photographer Boris Mikhailov’s Ukrainian Diary: ‘He is a kind of proto-punk’ | Images

Yoshiko Yap

Born in 1938, Boris Mikhailov grew up in the industrial metropolis of Kharkov (now Kharkiv) in what was then Soviet Ukraine. “There was nothing at all there to influence me,” he said of his formative decades as a photographer. “I found myself in a sort of zero point out – a condition of overall openness.” Without any information of photography’s history, traditions and classes, he turned a self-taught artist in the truest perception, his operate pushed by his fertile imagination, absurdist humour and apparent disregard for recognized notions of technological excellence or formal composition.

Upcoming thirty day period, these quintessentially Mikhailovian elements will be on screen at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP) in Paris, which will host an considerable retrospective of his work. Titled Ukrainian Diary, it options chosen is effective from 27 projects created above the past 50 a long time. It is an attention-grabbing time to show his perform, not minimum mainly because Mikhailov’s Ukraine is not the Ukraine now mounted in the well known creativity – a European-style place whose progressive ideas and Europeanised society so incensed Vladimir Putin that he declared war on its citizens. (The exhibition, and an accompanying reserve, were prepared prior to the invasion and the two are focused “to Ukraine and to all who are suffering from the treacherous and incomprehensible attack on our motherland, with terrific sorrow and countless compassion.”)

A woman in a sundress and straw hat in front of framed portraits of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
From the collection Crimean Snobbism, 1982. Photograph: Boris Mikhailov, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

For a very good portion of Mikhailov’s everyday living, Ukraine was a additional dismally uniform Soviet state in which the everyday life of its citizens were scrutinised, managed and compressed by the ever watchful eye of the authorities. He became a photographer by accident, owning initially been supplied a digital camera to file lifetime in the point out-owned manufacturing unit in which he worked as a young person. When the KGB discovered that he was also making use of the factory laboratory to make nude portraits of his 1st wife, he was sacked and narrowly averted being sent to jail. Undaunted, he continued earning experimental images, frequently shooting on the streets of Kharkiv, where by a human being with a camera was instantly an object of suspicion. He confirmed his function in clandestine exhibitionsheld in the apartments of close friends and fellow artists, some of whom grew to become the nucleus of what would occur to be recognized as the Kharkiv School, several of whom were his inclined subjects.

His to start with undertaking, Yesterday’s Sandwich, in the late 60s-early 70s, arrived about by a moment of carelessness: “One day I threw a bunch of slides on a bed and two of them stuck with each other,” he says in a single of the intriguing first-person recollections that introduce just about every section of the reserve, “Fascinated by the resulting impression, I commenced superimposing 1 slide on top of a further and putting them in a frame, placing them with each other like a sandwich.” The prints are often grainy and the juxtapositions seem to be makeshift, but the photographs are oddly stunning and a bit disturbing: a female nude torso included in handwritten text a fried egg floating in the sky previously mentioned an expanse of grainy blue sea an nameless couple walking by way of a circle of uncooked meat.

From the 1997-98 series Case History.
From the 1997-98 sequence Circumstance Background. Photograph: Boris Mikhailov, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, courtesy Galerie Suzanne Tarasiève

“I see Boris as a sort of proto-punk,” suggests Aron Mörel, of Mörel Publications, publisher of the accompanying e-book and a friend of Mikhailov and his second spouse and creative collaborator, Vita. “He has this instinctively impartial mind-set and way of hunting at points as well as a resolutely Do-it-yourself method. The poetic alternatives of the lo-fi aesthetic are a lot additional exciting to him than our acquired notions of official craft and attractiveness.”

Since then, Mikhailov appears to be to have adopted exactly where his instincts led him. For Black Archive (1968-1979), he went in search of “the average” and “the anonymous” as a signifies of subverting the officially sanctioned photography of the time. One more collection, Red, incorporates snatched pictures of point out-organised communist parades in which the colour predominates on sashes, flags, banners and propaganda posters. Underneath communism, he recollects, “Red permeated all our life at all concentrations.”

From the 1966-68 series Yesterday’s Sandwich.
From the 1966-68 series Yesterday’s Sandwich. Photograph: Boris Mikhailov, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, courtesy Galerie Suzanne Tarasiève

In other places, Mikhailov’s tactic is much more mischievously subversive as he performs with all our acquired suggestions about artwork. In a 1988 series identified as Crimean Snobbism, he photographed himself and his pals, “playing at being abundant, at remaining bourgeois”, in exaggerated poses. “Both the greyness and the pomposity of the Soviet era are there in Boris’s photographs,” claims Mörel, “but, in contrast to that, the earth he inhabited with his buddies is also there and it is normally so playful and mischievous.”


In the post-Soviet a long time of the 1990s, issues took a darker turn in his function when he created his best acknowledged – and most controversial – sequence, Case Historical past, for which he paid homeless and destitute Ukrainians to pose for his digicam in tableaux that often nodded to Christian iconography and classical painting. The final results continue to be surprising and his motives have been questioned by some critics, but, for Mikhailov, the impulse was an urgent perception of social responsibility. In the reserve, he describes how, immediately after paying a 12 months in Berlin in the mid 90s, he returned to Kharkiv to come across a much-altered city that, superficially at minimum, appeared more conspicuously wealthy and sophisticated. “Then I seen that shadows were being passing in the streets… these shadows were homeless men and women, more and far more numerous. Which is when I experienced the idea of earning a requiem committed to these guys and girls who were being dying.”

Situation History is a relentlessly grim, at times grotesque, catalogue of human woe and wreckage. Ragged, emaciated gentlemen drop their trousers inebriated aged women bare their breasts feral youngsters sniff glue. There is a feeling of relentless squalor and a stench of demise about the collection that pretty much defies critical or aesthetic appraisal of the perform, but somewhat asks us to glimpse at these abject fellow human beings or switch away. The objections, unsurprisingly, tended to be ethical: was he exploiting his determined topics for our vicarious gaze? The concern resounds still.

From Case History.
From Scenario Historical past. Photograph: Boris Mikhailov, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, courtesy Galerie Suzanne Tarasiève

A self-styled prankster, provocateur and trickster, Boris Mikhailov can make art that does not in good shape neatly into any of photography’s enduring classes. For a extended time, he was an outsider and a maverick by requirement and, despite the embrace of the art environment, remains 1 by temperament. Amid the absurdity and the provocation of his Ukrainian Diary, there is the two humour and hope.

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