Boris Mikhailov

Already canonized as the “patriarch of Soviet photography,” at fifty-eight Boris Mikhailov is one of the most important contemporary Russian photographers to have explored the post-Soviet psyche. This gripping show drew from three recent series—“U Zemli,” 1991–92, “Sumerki,” 1993, and “If I Were a German,” 1995—and an earlier series “Luriki,” 1971–85. Beyond the daring vision these photographs presented of Russian life, they are striking in their refusal to privilege the technical virtuosity so dear to a growing number of artists from the former Soviet Union.

Mikhailov shot “U Zemli” (which means “to the ground, on the ground, or from the ground”) from the waist, using a 120-degree panoramic lens. The photographs were hung at a similarly low height in the gallery, in a kind of uninterrupted frieze. Recalling Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov’s notion of an expanded “camera eye,” Mikhailov’s technical manipulations and hidden camera serve to increase the photographs’ legitimacy as documents, though these images arise as much from childhood memories (hence the child’s-eye-view) as from the scenes unfolding before the camera. Taking his native Kharkov (today part of the Ukraine) as his subject, Mikhailov captures its urban landscape—deteriorating buildings and streets lined with people queuing for bargains—in a way that recalls the explosive period in the city directly preceding the 1917 October Revolution. Never didactic in its references to political history, Mikhailov’s reportage focuses on the stark beauty of silent human drama.

Russian daily life is the subject of “Sumerki” (At dusk), a series of works that immediately followed the sepia-toned “U Zemli”; this time, however, the photographs are more satirical. These images of the quotidian—old women bundled in layers of clothes, drunk men, and the disabled, previously invisible on Russian streets—bear witness to the economic hardship that followed the dismantling of the Soviet Union. Applying what Mikhailov dubs his “method of parallel historical associations,” the photographer attempts to transcend the temporal specificity of these images, evoking memories of World War II. It is difficult, in fact, to assess how much the present situation of hopelessness and pain results from recent political and economic changes and how much it is a product of the old system. But even if these photographs expose the ugliness and paranoia of Russian life, past and present, Mikhailov forgoes blunt criticism in favor of sharp observations sympathetic to the “Russian condition” or byt.

In “Luriki,” Mikhailov presents intimate portraits of anonymous Russians that recall a period in his life (the ’60s and ’70s) when, working as an independent commercial photographer, restorer, and retoucher, he assembled a collection of prints depicting Russians dressed in their finest, which he rephotographed and then hand-colored. (The title of the series is a word coined by the artist, derived from another Russian word zhmuriki; which literally means those who wink or blink, and metaphorically often refers to the dead.) At once sentimental and unsettling in the staged poses the subjects often assumed, these photographs establish a relationship between masquerade and politics, alluding as they do to official Russian holidays and their blurring of private and public life. Going beyond the Russian context and drawing a parallel between the body and society, they explore the psychological state that leads to a disruption of group identity and to a subversion of the prevailing order.

Mikhailov’s interest in kitsch, in its almost pornographic form, is most strongly conveyed in the series “If I Were a German,” 1995, in which he stages tableaux vivants full of provoking allusions to the sadomasochistic impulses, even desires, that drove Russian men to war. Offering a decided repudiation of heroism and machismo, these images of male bonding show a naked Mikhailov among other naked figures. Blurring the boundaries between himself and his creations, Mikhailov exposes his aging body to the camera, and by stripping himself of all accoutrements offers a powerful visual testament to the importance of masquerade in Russian culture.

Marek Bartelik