If you ask Juergen Teller who his favorite photographers are, he will always mention Boris Mikhailov as one of them. Using mostly Russian cameras, including the panoramic Gorizont-5 camera, he has found his artistic voice in less than ideal circumstances. Between the abject poverty, Soviet restrictions and the KGB.
Art or Life?
Boris Mikhailov was born in 1938 in Kharkov, Ukraine and lives and works in both the Ukraine and Berlin these days. Many choose to qualify him as an art photographer. But when he was photographing in the active Soviet Union, art was probably the furthest thing from his mind. At the time, I think he more thought of himself as a social documentary photographer.
Between 1968 to 1975 he shot some of his most well known work, known as the Red Series. While he mainly used the color red, symbolizing the “October Revolution” political party and Soviet society. The KGB found nude pictures of his wife in a raid. This resulted in his being fired from his job as an engineer. So was born a ‘full time’ photographer.
The Mikhailov Gulag – Everyday Life
His images of the homeless and destitute populace was exactly the opposite of what any good comrade would envision a utopian Marxist existence to be. Something he often referred to as the “mask of beauty”. He exposed the harshness and helplessness of everyday life. They say a picture is worth a 1000 words. If true, Boris Mikhailov was as responsible for the disintegration of the Soviet empire as Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago”. Images are powerful and important, giving a voice to those with no voice. From these ashes emerged a post-Soviet capitalistic way of life. His work is considered an important part of contemporary art today.
His photographs document some of the most important events of the 20th century. At the ground level. The fact that he was raided so many times by the KGB belies the fact that he remained free. Imprisonment was a possibility at any time. By the time his book “Case History” was published he was instantly branded a “traitor”. His crime was exposing the sorrow and hopelessness of a regime that had already passed.
And he still has not ceased. Although he is now barely removed from the Soviet sphere. (Ukraine) He gave us more than 40 years of making a visual statement on film. His retrospectives spanned 1968 to 2002, and shed light on the inhumanity of government when it gets too large and centrally administered.
The retrospective follows the journey through many cameras, films. Even occasionally hand tinting to give a pop art element to a “grayer than gray” environment. Maybe a little schizoid. But through it all, Boris Mikhailov showed us his sense of humor, his compassion,… and his bravery. No wonder Juergen Teller likes him. Find Zorki 4