The MEP opens a retrospective of one of the most influential photographers from Eastern Europe, Boris Mikhailov

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“A photographer is not a hero. He has no great desire to be there at the end of the world to document the most important, the most interesting and the hardest things. A photographer is not a hero.” Boris Mikhailov.

If there is one lasting impression of the Ukrainian photographer, Boris Mikhailov, it is his resistance to authority. In particular, his opposition to the control of people under Communism. A self-taught artist and ‘proto-Punk’ of photography, Mikhailov is known for documenting and softly satirising everyday life before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union (1922–1991). A major solo show of the artist’s versatile career, Boris Mikhailov: Ukrainian Diary, is on display at Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris until 15 January 2023, and assembles over 20 series from across his six-decade career. Coincidentally – and unfortunately – the exhibition came to fruition against the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, a critical historical moment that has directly impacted the artist as well as the curatorial direction of the show, led by Laurie Hurwitz. 

Born in 1938 in Kharkiv (then Kharkov), Ukraine, to a Jewish family, Mikhailov moved to Berlin in the 1990s. His work, however, has always remained tied to his native city. “Kharkov and I are one and the same,” he once said. His entry into photography was as unorthodox as his practice. When he was 31, he took up the camera professionally after he was fired from his engineering job in a state factory – he was caught using the site’s darkroom to develop nude photographs of his wife, Vita, who remains his most important creative collaborator. Deemed ‘unreliable’ by the KGB and narrowly avoiding prison, the transition became a decisive turning point in his life, setting him on a path to becoming arguably the most significant photographer to emerge from Eastern Europe. 

From the series 'Salt Lake', 1986 © Boris Mikhaïlov, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Courtesy Galerie Suzanne Tarasiève, Paris.
From the series 'I am not I', 1992 © Boris Mikhaïlov, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Courtesy Galerie Suzanne Tarasiève, Paris.
From the series 'Diary', 1973-2016 © Boris Mikhaïlov, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Courtesy Galerie Suzanne Tarasiève, Paris

“From the way that Boris takes pictures, I have the complete impression of a catastrophic shot on the verge of self-destruction”

Ilya Kabakov

 

Ironically, it was the Ukrainian’s lack of photographic training that led to his success, providing him with a unique and peripheral perspective. “As an unofficial photographer, I discover, I observe, I clandestinely stalk,” he said. Mikhailov’s proclivity for risk underpinned his career, though it came at a price. Speaking to Le Figaro, Mikhailov reflects on the early years of his career working in the former Soviet Union: “The most terrifying thing was on the street: anyone could call the police just because you took a photo, and you would be questioned. There was a very strong climate of mistrust, an omnipresent spy hunt.” He became known for showing his work in “dissident kitchens”, clandestine exhibitions organised in private flats, and became an active member of a collective of non-conformist photographers, later known as the Kharkiv School of Photography. In the words of his long-term friend and fellow artist Ilya Kabakov, “From the way that Boris takes pictures, I have the complete impression of a catastrophic shot on the verge of self-destruction”.

From the series 'Yesterday’s Sandwich', 1966-68. © Boris Mikhaïlov, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Courtesy Galerie Suzanne Tarasiève, Paris.

Curated thematically rather than chronologically, the MEP show outlines the evolution of Mikhailov’s career. It highlights early series such as Black Archive (1968–1979), Luriki (1971–1985) and Dance (1978) – for which he won the Hasselblad Award in 2000 – and later works created after the fall of the Soviet Union, such as Case History (1997–1998) and Temptation of Death (2017–2019). While the political overtones of his work become louder later in his career, the common thread – from the late 1960s to the 2000s – is his curiosity for the mundane and unexpected moments of daily life in and around Kharkiv. 

One of the most striking works included in the exhibition is titled National Hero. It focuses on the artist’s “most important aesthetic innovations” in a non-chronological order. A self portrait of the same name, created as part of the eponymous series in 1991, when Ukraine had become an independent nation following Gorbachev’s resignation and the dissolution of the USSR, ‘National Hero’ [the image] depicts the young artist in military garb. A Ukrainian folk embroidery has replaced the typical Soviet military insignia on his chest, and he stands against a washed-out pink background, his lips rouged as if wearing make-up. 

In today’s context, this portrait speaks powerfully to the fraught yet entwined military histories of Ukraine and Russia, but also comically disrupts the solemnity and machismo of the original headshot. “Art can compromise an ideology by aesthetic means,” Mikhailov once said – a statement encapsulating his agenda across six decades of work. By manipulating the image, the artist references the Soviet tradition of retouching photography under Stalin’s regime (often to alter the historical narrative), but also parodies the artificiality and garishness of the Socialist Realist palette. The DIY-effect of his photography undermines the formal teaching of the medium that propped up an ideological system, in which the ‘real’ and representational were closely tied to propaganda. By contrast, Mikhailov’s images – charged with irony and humour – weaponise imperfection. They are deliberately ‘bad’, detached from the real, and unapologetically kitsch, low-contrast, blurry, flawed and often printed on poor-quality paper. In the artist’s words: “If photography previously aspired to technical perfection, in my work bad quality became an objective.”

From the series 'National Hero', 1991 © Boris Mikhaïlov, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Courtesy Galerie Suzanne Tarasiève, Paris.

Crucially, National Hero derides traditional portrayals of masculinity. This is a recurrent theme in Mikhailov’s oeuvre that is also present in I am Not I (1992), another series of self-portraits included in the MEP show. In both works, Mikhailov investigates the dynamic between artist and subject (he represents both). He boldly asserts his individualism – a gesture at odds with the Soviet state’s suppression of individual expression. According to Simon Baker, the director of MEP, such a performance mirrors and resists the everyday behaviour demanded under totalitarianism, which “requires of its citizens a kind of performed (and false) good behaviour,” he says. In this sense, Mikhailov absurdly performs non-conformity, presenting an image of the anti-hero and poking fun at masculinity itself.

“A photographer’s task is to always find this subtle and vague border between the permitted and the prohibited. This border is constantly changing, like life itself.”

 

In one of his most significant series, Red (1975–1982) Mikhailov documents public spaces, often resorting to surreptitiously photographing from beneath his coat, or out of eyeshot, during ‘state-authorised’ demonstrations. The desire to capture such heightened spaces of surveillance – in which there is no clear division between private and public – fuelled his work: “A photographer’s task is to always find this subtle and vague border between the permitted and the prohibited. This border is constantly changing, like life itself.”

From the series 'Red', 1968-75© Boris Mikhaïlov, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.
From the series 'Red', 1968-75 © Boris Mikhaïlov, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

The accentuation of red – the colour of the October Revolution – imbues each image in the series with a visceral punch that counters the drudgery and drab conformity stereotypically associated with Communism. As Marina Abramovic, the Serbian performance artist, once reflected in her autobiography: “There is something about Communism and socialism – it’s a kind of aesthetic based on pure ugliness.” For the young Abramovic, the distinct lack of beauty contributed to an unrelenting “feeling of oppression, and a little bit of depression.” Mikhailov’s Red pierces through this stereotype. His images unexpectedly offer a sense of playfulness and even joy. The artist once explained: “The word ‘red’ in Russian contains the root of the word for beauty. It also means the Revolution and evokes blood and the red flag.” Yet, in adherence to Abramovic’s observations, Red expresses the omnipresence and oppressiveness of the colour. “Everyone associates red with Communism. Maybe that’s enough. But few people know that red permeated all our lives, at all levels”. 

Mikhailov’s work is a rich and self-referential homage to art and its history under the Soviet Union, from the avant-garde montages of Alexander Rodchenko to the kitsch propagandist images of Socialist Realism. The series Red appropriates the old-fashioned technique of making hand-coloured prints. The colourful overlaid slides in Yesterday’s Sandwich, to a degree, echo the uncanny montages of the Surrealists. By allowing chance to connect disparate images, Mikhailov wants to bring “together several topics into a single, common world view inextricably linked to mass culture, memory and the collective unconscious of Soviet people in the 1960 and 1970s.”

From the series 'Case History', 1997-98 © Boris Mikhaïlov, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn Courtesy Galerie Suzanne Tarasiève, Paris

During this heightened time of war, in which images of Ukraine are mediated and arguably flattened through news reports, Mikhailov’s humanising photographs jolt the viewer into sensitivity, reminding us of the plight of real individuals in Ukraine. “Boris and his family are still traumatised,” Baker tells BJP. “Because of the conflict, Boris and Vita wanted to remove elements in the show that felt too playful, and instead focus on the most gritty and serious aspects of his work.” 

But a sense of playfulness does characterise the MEP show, serving as an honest reflection of Mikhailov’s practice, which has bravely weaponised humour to challenge the control of daily life under the Soviet Union. “Photography allowed me to move from a life without purpose to an existence that allows you to understand that you are doing something that matters,” he explains. At a time when the future of Ukraine remains unclear, Mikhailov’s clear and poignant images of his native country resonate louder than ever. 

Boris Mikhailov: Ukrainian Diary is on show at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris until 15 January 2023