Born in 1938, Boris Mikhailov grew up in the industrial city of Kharkov (now Kharkiv) in what was then Soviet Ukraine. “There was nothing there to influence me,” he said of his formative years as a photographer. “I found myself in a sort of zero state – a state of total openness.” Without any knowledge of photography’s history, traditions and categories, he became a self-taught artist in the truest sense, his work driven by his fertile imagination, absurdist humour and apparent disregard for accepted notions of technical excellence or formal composition.
Next month, those quintessentially Mikhailovian elements will be on display at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP) in Paris, which will host an extensive retrospective of his work. Titled Ukrainian Diary, it features selected works from 27 projects made over the past 50 years. It is an interesting time to exhibit his work, not least because Mikhailov’s Ukraine is not the Ukraine currently fixed in the popular imagination – a European-style country whose progressive principles and Europeanised culture so incensed Vladimir Putin that he declared war on its citizens. (The exhibition, and an accompanying book, were planned before the invasion and both are dedicated “to Ukraine and to all who are suffering from the treacherous and incomprehensible attack on our motherland, with great sorrow and endless compassion.”)
For a good portion of Mikhailov’s life, Ukraine was a more dismally uniform Soviet state in which the everyday lives of its citizens were scrutinised, controlled and compressed by the ever watchful eye of the authorities. He became a photographer by accident, having initially been given a camera to record life in the state-owned factory in which he worked as a young man. When the KGB discovered that he was also using the factory laboratory to make nude portraits of his first wife, he was sacked and narrowly avoided being sent to prison. Undaunted, he continued making experimental photographs, often shooting on the streets of Kharkiv, where a person with a camera was automatically an object of suspicion. He showed his work in clandestine exhibitionsheld in the apartments of friends and fellow artists, some of whom became the nucleus of what would come to be known as the Kharkiv School, many of whom were his willing subjects.
His first project, Yesterday’s Sandwich, in the late 60s-early 70s, came about through a moment of carelessness: “One day I threw a bunch of slides on a bed and two of them stuck together,” he says in one of the intriguing first-person recollections that introduce each section of the book, “Fascinated by the resulting image, I started superimposing one slide on top of another and placing them in a frame, putting them together like a sandwich.” The prints are often grainy and the juxtapositions seem makeshift, but the images are oddly beautiful and slightly disturbing: a female nude torso covered in handwritten text; a fried egg floating in the sky above an expanse of grainy blue sea; an anonymous couple walking through a circle of raw meat.
“I see Boris as a kind of proto-punk,” says Aron Mörel, of Mörel Books, publisher of the accompanying book and a friend of Mikhailov and his second wife and creative collaborator, Vita. “He has this instinctively independent attitude and way of looking at things as well as a resolutely DIY approach. The poetic possibilities of the lo-fi aesthetic are much more interesting to him than our received notions of formal craft and beauty.”
Since then, Mikhailov seems to have followed where his instincts led him. For Black Archive (1968-1979), he went in search of “the average” and “the anonymous” as a means of subverting the officially sanctioned photography of the time. Another series, Red, includes snatched shots of state-organised communist parades in which the colour predominates on sashes, flags, banners and propaganda posters. Under communism, he recalls, “Red permeated all our lives at all levels.”
Elsewhere, Mikhailov’s approach is more mischievously subversive as he plays with all our received ideas about art. In a 1988 series called Crimean Snobbism, he photographed himself and his friends, “playing at being rich, at being bourgeois”, in exaggerated poses. “Both the greyness and the pomposity of the Soviet era are there in Boris’s photographs,” says Mörel, “but, in contrast to that, the world he inhabited with his friends is also there and it’s always so playful and mischievous.”
In the post-Soviet years of the 1990s, things took a darker turn in his work when he made his best known – and most controversial – series, Case History, for which he paid homeless and destitute Ukrainians to pose for his camera in tableaux that often nodded to Christian iconography and classical painting. The results remain shocking and his motives have been questioned by some critics, but, for Mikhailov, the impulse was an urgent sense of social responsibility. In the book, he describes how, after spending a year in Berlin in the mid 90s, he returned to Kharkiv to find a much-changed city that, superficially at least, appeared more conspicuously wealthy and sophisticated. “Then I noticed that shadows were passing in the streets… these shadows were homeless people, more and more numerous. That’s when I had the idea of making a requiem dedicated to these men and women who were dying.”
Case History is a relentlessly grim, at times grotesque, catalogue of human woe and wreckage. Ragged, emaciated men drop their trousers; inebriated elderly women bare their breasts; feral youngsters sniff glue. There is a sense of relentless squalor and a stench of death about the series that almost defies critical or aesthetic appraisal of the work, but rather asks us to look at these abject fellow human beings or turn away. The objections, unsurprisingly, tended to be moral: was he exploiting his desperate subjects for our vicarious gaze? The question resounds still.
A self-styled prankster, provocateur and trickster, Boris Mikhailov makes art that does not fit neatly into any of photography’s enduring categories. For a long time, he was an outsider and a maverick by necessity and, despite the embrace of the art world, remains one by temperament. Amid the absurdity and the provocation of his Ukrainian Diary, there is both humour and hope.