Boris Mikhailov was born in 1938 in Kharkov, Ukraine. He was working as a technical engineer, he started to take nude photos of his wife. When the KGB discovered the nude photographs, he got fired from his job at the factory, and began a full time career as a photographer. His photographic works are stretched between two extreme poles - documentaries and staged photographs. His work is a mixture of political and personal problems, connected by humour.
"Eventually I do show the raw, direct, non-mediated photographic image. I am not trying to take pictures of sensational things, but rather of those things which are in excess. I am trying to find the unique in that manifold reality itself. Maybe that is exactly what people like, first of all."
“This image was part of a series I put together in 2006 called Yesterday’s Sandwich, in which two pictures from the past were combined. My friends have been superimposed over a photograph of a poster I saw in town at that time. I don’t remember what it was for, but it was probably advertising a demo or an important communist, as all posters at that time were ideological. Valera is holding the racket like a fighter bearing a sword. That’s why the shot reminds me of the final verse of my favourite Oscar Wilde poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol. I think of it as my poem:
And all men kill the thing they love,
By all let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!
For me, everything started with this shot. I felt like an artist for the first time in my life.” - Boris Mikhailov
”Salt Lake” was made in 1986, and is a series of 50 photographs of a salt lake, near the birthplace of Boris Mikhailov’s father in the south of the Ukraine. His father remembered the lake as a popular spot in the 1920s, which was famous for the warm, salty water with healing properties.
In 1986 Boris Mikhailov went back to this place and discovered, that while habits had not changed, the lake was now surrounded by factory chimneys, brick warehouses and industrial-sized pipes discharging waste into the water. He captured strange scenes, in which people bathing in murky waters, and don’t care about the chaotic landscape around them.
“There’s a kind of interplay between the old and the new going on here. […] It was an outworking of an old idea I’d entertained before: we’re right there, and yet not there. It’s both today—and a long long time ago.“ - Boris Mikhailov
”Salt Lake” was published by Steidl in 2002. The book itself was designed by Boris Mikhailov, using Russian paper and binding materials. You can still purchase a copy at Steidl.
The series “At Dusk” from 1993, was created immediately after the collapse of the USSR, and was taken with a wide-format panoramic camera. It talks about the radical social changes that occurred in the nineties in the former Soviet Union, which left many people hopeless.
“1941. I was three years old and I can still remember the bombings, the howling sirens and the searchlights in the wonderful, dark-blue sky. Blue, blue, light-blue…
For some reason we think that one generation will be spared a war. I see this blue series as the second. The population of the city has shrunk to 250,000 inhabitants. Fifty to eighty per cent of the factories and plants have shut down. More people are dying than being born. For a long time the dead were buried in polyethylene bags. You have to bring your own sheets, syringes, medicine, etc with you to the maternity home. The rats are the first to leave the sinking ship. These little animals…
Everybody knows that the old people have to die first… My son Iljuscha has been living in another country for three years. Thirty people have frozen to death on the streets. This prompted my friend to open an exhibition. Homes were not heated for three long winter months at minus 22 degrees. A nineteen-year-old girl stole my shoes in the train. Having woken up by chance, I caught up with her bare-foot at the end of the carriage.
Perhaps I should emigrate and live with the French? The door to my relatives’ home was broken down and their home was burgled. You are scared to enter a dark hallway. The bank does not return the money. Everything stinks of urine. But an acquaintance of mine, a photographer, has opened a restaurant and sold his camera. Another breeds dogs. A third heals people.
1994–1995. People earn four times as much, the average salary is now around $50. But it has not been paid for months. Prices rise. They are almost as high as in New York or Berlin. There are more and more shops with Western goods. There are people who shop there. Is it perhaps a good thing that fewer people will live here in future?
But more Chinese people? “Everything will turn out fine,” the radio broadcaster says today. I have forgotten something. The sewerage system stopped working in the summer. Soldiers watch out that nobody bathes in the river. Many people have diarrhoea, but cholera has not broken out. We are pleasantly surprised that tumbledown houses in the city centre are being renovated.
Pregnant women often find it difficult to cross the road because of heavy traffic. I have already seen a picture for the new pink book, at dawn: A woman held up her new-born son by the foot, then lifted it up above her head, and he suddenly looked like a Buddha. The woman kissed him.
“Look at Me, I Look at Water” was composed in 1999 at the suggestion of the Heiner Müller-Society when Boris Mikhailov’s name was found in one of Heiner Müller’s notebooks. With this book Mikhailov is continuing, thematically and conceptionally, what he began with his artist’s book Unfinished Dissertationin 1985. The photographs are accompanied by handwritten Russian commentaries, which together give the impression of a private album which narrates stories from a chapter in the artist’s life. (Publisher’s Description)
“This was a time in my life of much traveling — from East to West, and back again — and it coincided with a certain loss of identity. It was a time in which moral qualities seemed shaken: the focus of my attention altered, latching onto the possibility of moral change. The gaze which searches over the surface of things held sway over a more analytical response to the visual. I feel that this book may be of interest, trying as it does to reflect the initial period associated with the processes of emigration. The pictures describe a range of unstable states, and also the intensity of some obscure quest, a quest which is also a sort of experiment.” - Boris Mikhailov
“Look at Me, I Look at Water” was published by Steidl in 2004, where you still can get a copy steidlville.com.
“Yesterday’s Sandwich” was made in the late 60s and early 70s. “Sandwich” in this case, means the technique of creating a new picture by overlaying two slides. Boris Mikhailov creates with this technique, an extraordinary double world of Soviet drudgery Juxtaposed with sex and beauty.
In the earlier years, Boris Mikhailov was just able to show this body of work in slideshows, because at this time, paper was too expensive. Just in the early 90s he managed to print his work on paper. The first edition was formed of 52 colour tableaux printed on separate unbound boards and enclosed within a specially created folder and slip case.
The new edition was published 2009 by Phaidon, in a hardbound format. You can get a copy directly by Phaidon.
“This was a period of hidden meanings and coded messages in all genres,” Mikhailov writes in the essay accompanying the book. “Given the scarcity of real news, everyone was on the lookout for the smallest piece of new information, hoping to uncover a secret or read between the lines. Encryption was the only way to explore forbidden subjects such as politics, religion, nudity.”
Here is a nice short video, where Boris Mikhailov explains some pictures of his series.
Between 1984 and 1985, Boris Mikhailov worked on “Unfinished Dissertation”. He was gluing his pictures of everyday life in Kharkov, on the back of his uncle’s lecture notes. Later he added handwritten autobiographical comments, philosophical fragments and notes on photography in the empty spaces. His notes are a stimulating counterpoint to the photographs.
“The usefulness of something unfinished is that it may be taken or claimed as one’s own. Strange unfinishedness is an aesthetic principle.”- Boris Mikhailov
Margarita Tupitsyn wrote in an essay appended to Unfinished Dissertation, “Mikhailov saw no point in providing an explicit critique of Soviet society, either through mocking it or through unmasking its endless vices. Instead, his goal was to preserve Soviet reality’s sense of totality, but without its layer of systematically sustained external joy.”
“Unfinished Dissertation”, was published in 1998 by SCALO and you can still get a copy at PhotoBookStore and Schaden.
“Suzi et cetera” was made in the early 1980s in Boris Mikhailov’s hometown Charkow, Ukraine. It contains 99 photography, mainly nudes and crazy still lives, with the charm of a private photo album. ”Suzi et cetera” was published in a paperback edition by Verlag der Buchhandlung Walter König 2007.
One of Boris Mikhailov’s most important work, “Case History” explores the break-up of the Soviet Union by focussing on the homeless, living on the margins of Russia’s new economic regime without social support or care. ”Case History” was published in 1999 by SCALO.
“This series of photos is a cycle called “Case History”, that I might equally call the “clinical file of a disease”. It took shape round 1997-1998. A big city, such as Harkov, offered me a great deal of raw material. And I did not miss it, I did not ignore it.”
“What happened on the ruins of the ex-Soviet Empire is still unique. Motivations are different. These guys’ shabbiness is the mirror of the ruin and disappointment of a much larger number of people, most of whom no longer feel safe and wealthy as in the Soviet era; many people’s ideals are gone forever, others have simply gone mad! I have taken pictures of them and I have enjoyed it, and maybe the whole world has a better understanding of the post-communist dramas through these sequences taken directly after nature.”
“I am not trying to take pictures of sensational things, but rather of those things which are in excess.”- Boris Mikhailov
“If models get paid to appear in an advertisement, nobody cares. Why can’t I? This gave me the possibility to photograph them, and gave them the possibility to live. This is what Western photographers would do when they came to Russia to make pictures. The models would be paid as if they were posing nude at the art academy.” - out of “A Conversation with Boris Mikhailov and Eva Resoni”
“Maquette Braunschweig” was published by Steidl in 2010, and is Boris Mikhailov’s analysis of Germany’s political and demographic development. In the beginning of 2008, Boris Mikhailov accompanied the theater play “Perser” by Aischylos, with amateur actors. The play was produced as an allegory of war and a young democracy. Boris Mikhailov was also a part of the production process and created four acts: “German Portraits”, “Shooting”, “Bus Stop” and “Home T(h)eatre”, which take a close look at the weak points and the margins of this community, and portraits the future of Germany.
“My former slapdash Soviet methodologies united with German reality have helped me, I believe, to manifest something new. Perhaps something very small and simple but in some way very pure.” - Boris Mikhailov
“The Wedding” was published and designed by Mörel Books in 2011. Boris Mikhailov documents, far away from the typical visual cliches of a weeding, the wedding of a homeless couple in Ukraine, in a disturbing and also humorous way.
“The Wedding” is bound in imitation of a traditional wedding album, with faux-leather and gold-debossed lettering designed by calligrapher John Stevens. It is further finished off with a text by Adrian Searle and comes in a limited edition of 1.000.