Arts Gallery

Boris Mikhailov, "The Insulted and the Injured"

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 was fired.

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 amateur photography.

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 care.

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 produced.

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 despair.

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 remains disturbing.

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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