Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York
Story by Vicki Goldberg, New York Times
"Images of Wretchedness From the Soviet Eden"
April 28, 2002
Photgraphs from Pace/McGill Gallery
A study of the homeless from ``Case History,'' 1999, by Boris Mikhailov
BORIS MIKHAILOV went into photography full time largely
because the Soviet government did not approve of his
photographs. He was an engineer who worked in a factory and
took pictures in his spare time. The K.G.B., on one of its
"checkups," found some photographs of nudes in his lab. He
After that, he worked unofficially and indeed illegally in
what was known as the "shadow economy," where entrepreneurs
practiced capitalism on a small scale. He enlarged and
printed snapshots from people's family albums, which, as he
has pointed out, gave him a vast knowledge of Soviet
He took another "forbidden" picture of a woman, this one
fully clothed, that pleased him very much. She was holding
a cigarette butt, which Soviet women didn't do in
photographs because they were obliged to represent an
ideal. Mr. Mikhailov decided that photography could be a
means of self-expression that extended beyond the cramped
limits of the Soviet rule book.
His work became a private protest. He was not allowed to
photograph and did not show in official exhibitions, but in
the Soviet Union and the countries it dominated, unofficial
shows were held in apartments, even in cafes and laundries,
where people gathered to talk and exchange ideas. The arts
might be muzzled, but they could still growl.
When Soviet communism tottered and fell, Mr. Mikhailov kept
on protesting against the old mandates of moderation and
the long tradition of hiding, denying or simply ignoring
the truth. "Boris Mikhailov: The Insulted and the Injured"
at Pace/MacGill tells some pretty grisly truths. It is his
first major gallery show in the United States, though he
has had solo shows in a number of European museums. His
message is important and forcefully delivered when at its
most immoderate. Mr. Mikhailov is at his best when he does
his worst. He has an uncommonly powerful grasp of misery.
Content is everything here. He has picked up from the
carelessly inclusive nature of amateur photography a knack
for throwing in extraneous details that turn out to be what
really matters. In the eight pictures from the "Salt Lake"
series of 1986 (soon to be published by Steidl), people
bathe and chat and have a fine old time in a Ukrainian
lake. These pictures, color images made from toned
black-and-white prints, have acquired an off-putting sepia
cast. They describe a dreary spot, with low concrete
buildings, a huge pipe that people cling to in the water
and little islands of bubbles that float placidly among the
bathers. In fact, the untreated factory effluent empties
right here into the lake, but the bathers evidently do not
The rest of the show consists of 3 very large and 36 small
(about 7-by-10-inch) color photographs from a series called
"Case History," made in 1999. These portraits - no, that's
too kind a word - these raw images of homeless people in
Kharkov, Ukraine, Mr. Mikhailov's home town, are sometimes
intensely painful. Outdoors in the snow, a woman who has
pulled her panties to her knees holds her blouse above her
breasts while a man with a woeful face holds her and cups
one hand under the collapse of her scarred stomach.
Another woman, who points laughingly at her man's exposed,
not particularly amusing stomach, had a bandaged head and
an extravagantly black eye. One of his eyes stares
permanently at his nose. Elsewhere a woman squats to empty
her bowels on a concrete floor. One entire image is a
discolored breast with three large stitches and a dark blue
blouse folded around it.
"My aesthetic," Mr. Mikhailov told an interviewer two years
ago, "talks mainly about the dissolution of beauty." Well,
it has dissolved, along with a society. Mr. Mikhailov has
borne witness to a social history that did not, could not,
exist before. The Soviets would not have allowed these
photographs, but, according to Mr. Mikhailov, in those days
there were no homeless people in Kharkov. This account is a
lesson in the formation of class distinctions, which
communism was supposed to erase. Mr. Mikhailov's pictures
might just prove Marx right: look what capitalism has
A gallery may not be the optimal place to see this work;
its real force is better understood in a book titled "Case
History" (Scalo, 1999). Though repeated assault has
insulated and nearly bullet-proofed my visual responses, I
find the book shocking. It's not just the poverty and
hardship, not even the bodily erosion and stony sorrow, but
the theatrical sense of intimacy that stings my eyes.
People open up - unzip their jackets and trousers, display
wounds, tattoos, growths on their genitals, suffering,
resignation, defiant dignity and seriousness that is
alternately wan and fierce. Complaisantly or
matter-of-factly they strip away layers of human protective
disguise, whether of fabric or pretense.
Boris Mikhailov's photographs are dry-eyed and blunt.
Bathers at a fouled beach from ``Salt Lake,'' 1986.
The pictures have a terrible cumulative power, and Mr.
Mikhailov's use of sequential images illuminates both the
way he works and his subjects' lives. He includes scenes of
real affection, for the same or the opposite sex, one man
for both a woman and a man. This man's male friend is
fairly good looking until his mouth is forced open,
exposing the few rotten teeth he has left.
A couple of women remember that it is supposed to be sexy
to exhibit your body. A few laugh. The kids have a great
time and inhale something or other from pink plastic bags.
Mostly this life is not a laughing matter. Mr. Mikhailov
writes that generally people forced into homelessness died
and that those who elected it survived. Other
photographers, like Luc Delahaye and Gueorgui Pinkhassov,
have pictured the failed territories of post-Soviet life,
and gruesomely. Mr. Mikhailov's photographs convey an
unnerving sense of penetrating skin to the bone or to
These photographs come smack up against the potential for
exploitation so hotly debated in the criticism of
documentary photography. He paid his subjects to pose - he
says it would have been immoral not to - and often directed
them, for instance, to take off their clothes. He writes
that "manipulating with money is somehow a new way of legal
relations" in the former U.S.S.R. and he wanted to show how
openly people can be manipulated. His wife earned the trust
of people who were afraid of everything, and he invited
some of them to his home, let them take baths, gave them a
drink and evidently food as well.
He had the power of money and of the camera; they had none.
They all agreed to have their pictures published in
magazines so others would know how they lived. The
imbalance of power inherent in photographing the poor
He has written that the homeless are either totally ignored
or randomly kicked or shoved into the street. One passer-by
shouted at him for photographing a man on the ground then
walked on when he asked her to help stand the man up and
take him home. He asks whether it would be better to let
him die than to publish the photo. "In general," he writes,
"it is hard to speak about morality when one is wearing
long fur coats."
And he says these photographs are his civic duty. There are
no photographs of the 1930's famine in Ukraine, when
millions died, no photographs of Soviet losses in World War
II, an entire history either expunged from the visual
record or glamorized. Something inside told him he was not
allowed to let another era go undocumented. Like what he
did or not, it is history, it's inflammatory - and it
scorches the soul.
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