Boris Mikhailov

The twenty-six photographic series that Ukrainian photographer Boris Mikhailov made between the late 1960s and 2002 (all but three of which are represented in this exhibition) include several varieties of homemade antidote to official Soviet visual culture as well as negotiations—some shaky, some masterful—with the many new “freedoms” of the post-Soviet world. Though the series vary enormously in format, technique, and strategy, Mikhailov’s interests in the individual rather than the type, immediacy rather than distance, and the everyday rather than the ceremonial remain constant throughout, constituting a direct challenge to what Boris Groys might call “the Soviet promotion machine.”

In the large sepia prints of “Salt Lake,” 1986, fat, unselfconscious members of the working class are seen bathing in a giant pool of soda-factory effluence near the Ukranian capital of Kharkov. Nobody here resembles those active youths on propaganda posters. And after the disintegration of the USSR, Mikhailov continued to confront power with truth: Both “On the Ground,” 1991 (the Russian title of which is taken from the Gorky play The Lower Depths), and the brutal “Case Histories,” 1998, chronicle the street life of Moscow and Mikhailov’s native Kharkov with an unblinking eye.

These and other series have obvious analogues in Western documentary and street photography. But other material cannot fully be described by the Western art-historical terms “conceptual,” “found,” or “staged,” though there are family resemblances. Take for example, “Sots Art,” 1975–78, and “Luriki,” 1971–85. Because color printing was extremely expensive in the Soviet Union, family or other personal black-and-white photos were often hand colorized. Mikhailov did this for money but also found inspiration in it, overpainting his own and others’ photographs to make works like one from “Sots Art” (not included in the current show) of six stout amateur gymnasts, their rubber balls tinted startling shades of green, yellow, red, and pink. Here Mikhailov frames a popular practice against the dark backdrop of the regime’s own retouched photography, underscoring the pathos both of this particular practice and of photography itself.

In the mid-’80s Mikhailov made several series (some during photo-paper shortages) in which a number of small black-and-white images are printed or pasted onto a single sheet, often embellished with scribbled comments or identifiers. In one page from “Unfinished Dissertation,” 1985, for which he pasted hundreds of snapshots onto the backs of pages of the incomplete document of the title, we see the moustached artist in socks and underwear spread-eagled on his bed; another shot just like it, except that a cat has leapt into the frame; and yet another, slightly different from the first, but, as Russian curator and critic Ekaterina Degot notes in her catalogue essay, not in a particularly meaningful way. Unlike “Salt Lake,” these private experiments in antiphotography do not set out to capture beauty in the everyday but channel the unimportant moments of domestic life into images that are shorn of import themselves.

Degot usefully reminds us that a public and professional life stripped of meaning refocused Soviet citizens on human relationships and amateur pursuits, and further states that (unlike the Western-capitalist figure of the flaneur) an amateur is not alienated from his subject matter. And Mikhailov certainly inhabits the communities he depicts. Whether in “Crimean Snobbery,” 1982, in which he documents his friends pretending to be rich folks at the beach, or in individual shots of, say, a woman mooning the camera, there’s an overpowering feeling of people taking pictures of themselves, for themselves. Fortunately, Mikhailov’s slapstick impulse was not snuffed out with that intimate world; it reerupts postemigration in a project on (European) football commissioned in 2000. Here, Mikhailov and his wife and longtime collaborator, Vita, are pictured in a Berlin park goofing with a soccer ball (pretending to give birth to it, or swallow it, and corralling other parkgoers to do similarly absurd things with it). It’s a strange group of images, but it’s gratifying to see how Mikhailov continues to seek the grotesque and the warmly playful, even after the society that honed his vision has disappeared.

Larissa Harris