Boris Mikhailov’s photographs show the amateur photographer as a dissident in Ukraine

His father had told him about the medicinal salt lakes in Sloviansk. In 1986, photographer Boris Mikhailov went to see; not far from Kharkov, his residence in the then Soviet state of Ukraine. People really bathe there, he sees: working-class families on their Sunday afternoons off, in bikinis and swimming trunks, unhindered by the human beauty ideal of communist propaganda, eating with sun hats and bags.

Mikhailov (1938) does not find his father’s idyllic spa. Instead: smoking chimneys, electricity pylons, a railway along muddy banks. The salt water acts as raw material for the soda factory, which pumps its frothy waste water back into the lakes. Bathers sit in the water around the exit of such a tube, or they sit on it, with their legs dangling above the water as on a bathing jetty from the past.

Each picture from the ‘salt lake series’ is signed, but without captions. The real commentary, which he could never say out loud before the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991, is in the harsh contrasts, the negative’s rough, compressed edge, the scratches, the dust trails. In the sepia with which he washed each print, the color of an older era. These images have been emphatically violated. It’s like he developed them himself in those chemical pools.

Such a wordless ‘extra layer’ had already been ‘my signature’ for some time, Mikhailov said last fall at the opening of Journal Ukraine, the intoxicating retrospective that the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP) in Paris dedicates to him. The extra layer “enabled me to elevate the photograph to the level of art and show something beyond objectivity.” And to show “Sovietism”, as he calls it, but subtly enough not to offend the censor.

Ukrainian diary is the largest exhibition ever devoted to the photographer, whom no one in the West had heard of before 1991: around 800 photographs arranged more or less chronologically in the thematic series he has produced since the 1960s. Corona put an end to the original opening date. But it was also before the Russian attack on Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s attempt to turn back time to an idealized past, when Ukrainians would once again be second-class Russians. Putin’s invasion gives new relevance to the subversiveness of Mikhailov’s images.

‘Salt Lake’ (1986), bathing by an industrial waste water pipe in the salt lakes of Sloviansk.Photo Boris Mikhailov, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn / Galerie Suzanne Tarasiève,

Mikhailov was trained as an engineer, but photography attracted him more. In 1966, at his own request, he was given a camera and tasked with taking pictures of the production process at the steel factory where he worked. In the company’s darkroom, he found the archives of previous photographers: misprints and attempts, the images that might have been technically successful but had failed the test of social realism.

‘Bad photography’ suited him like a glove. Technically, he was a novice himself, and he wanted to keep it that way; after all, pretty pictures and success were part of the Soviet facade. By deliberately not striving for perfection in technique and message, he rejected the state. The amateur is the dissident.

‘I’m not interested in recording ‘achievements’,’ he later wrote under a lopsided photo of a piece of pavement with a tree and a fence, ‘but in the average of ordinary life’. And elsewhere: “A photographer is not a hero. His task is the truth in everyday life [tonen]: not too loud, not too rough, not too vulgar, not too calculated.”

Meanwhile, he also printed the nude photos he took at home of his wife Vita at work. When the KGB found out, he lost his job, but he had already found his calling. Occasionally his film rolls were confiscated, more than once a camera was destroyed. He was happy when the secret police again stopped him in the street and asked him: “Why are you photographing this, what’s good about this?”

‘National Hero’, colored self-portrait (1991)
Photo Boris Mikhailov, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn / Galerie Suzanne Tarasiève
Image from the series ‘Diary’ (1973-2016) and ‘National hero’, colored self-portrait (1991)
Pictures Boris Mikhailov, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn / Galerie Suzanne Tarasiève

Surreal family album

Back then, in the early 1970s, he made a living from commissioned portraits: newlyweds, babies, sailors before they went to sea, all in accordance with the current fashion. But then he edited them for his own use, colored them, not in semi-realistic pastel shades, but in a palette spiced with kitsch. Whiny, just enough to make people smile at the imagery he mocked, but not enough for the censor.

Loeriki, ‘sunrays’, he called the images in the surreal family album, which he would work on for about fifteen years. Still, being identified with his own style scared him. “In spite of yourself, you begin […] to betray the truth,” he writes in 1982, “the Lurik style as a method.”

Although he had been looking for other paths for some time, he returned gloriously once more. In 1991, just before Ukrainian independence, he portrayed himself as a Soviet soldier looking directly into the camera with a waxen face. His uniform is green, as it should be, but the background is candy pink. Above the left breast pocket, where you would expect medals, is a piece of traditional Ukrainian embroidery. Title: ‘National Hero’.

Picture from the series ‘Case History’ (1997-98) Photo Boris Mikhailov, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn / Galerie Suzanne Tarasiève

In the West, Mikhailov first became better known with the photographs he made from 1997 under the title ‘Case history‘, and which now also hang meters high in Paris: the shocking portraits of bombshomeless and unemployed in the snowy parks and terrain unclear of Kharkov, victims of the economic crisis that was the trade-off for Ukrainian independence. And controversial. Because Mikhailov and his wife not only helped those people with a bed and a meal, but also paid them to expose their naked, sick, alcoholic and drugged bodies. And by deliberately having them pose in groups as if it were a pietà, or Christ being taken down from the cross. “I feel manipulated and morally cornered,” wrote the critic, for example New York Times in 2011, when these portraits were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “It is uncomfortable how he pushes people with little choice into his grotesque, allegorical puppet theater and himself remains divinely invisible. But I cannot deny the dramatic brutality of the images, […] nor the artist’s justified indignation. […] I’m torn by ambivalence, and I think that’s a good thing.”

Panoramic images from the series ‘At Dusk’ (1993), in Mikhailov’s hometown Kharkov (Ukraine)
Photo Boris Mikhailov, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn / Galerie Suzanne Tarasiève

This was exactly what Mikhailov was still about with ‘Case History’: the ‘extra layer’: the images of the powerless were, according to him, ‘a requiem’ for the failure of communism and the preceding capitalism. place. And a requiem for human suffering in general.

He did it once in 1993 with a panoramic camera. He washed the wide pictures, shot at dusk or dawn and again deliberately ‘rough’, in blue, the color that reminded him of an air raid siren in broad daylight, of hunger and of his Jewish mother, whom he met Kharkov with just in time to escape from the advancing Germans (his father served in the Red Army); 2022 was not the first invasion he had experienced.


Strong in this exhibition are better-known photographs, such as Loeriki and other dyes, are theatrical Maidan barricades (2014), or his ‘sandwiches’ of the 1960s and 1970s with their relative openness: absurdist collages of slides he superimposed – think: forbidden nudes on waving cornfields of Soviet propaganda.

But the lesser-known images are just as powerful. Sometimes they are hilariously absurd, as in ‘I’m not me(1994), self-portraits from the studio, in which he ridiculously tries out all possible poses: as Rodin’s thinker with a dildo, the disco thrower, the mime artist Marcel Marceau, Buster Keaton and – the physical resemblance, including curly beard, is unmistakable – to Salvador Dali’s open eyes. Or the series Crimean snobbery (1982), where Vita, Boris and their friends play on a Black Sea boulevard that they are wealthy Westerners, the American dream, or whatever passed for it. “We wondered who we were,” he said. The Soviet era would end one day, another would begin, but it was unattainable for the time being, and no one knew what it would actually look like.

Figure from the series ‘Yesterday’s Sandwhich’ (1966-68)Photo Boris Mikhailov, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn / Galerie Suzanne Tarasiève

Some images from that series seem banal: a dance party at home, women sunbathing, a swimming pool. Snapshots, think for a moment. And then there is the extra layer again. “I was walking through a field,” he writes, “and suddenly the shadow of an airplane glided over me. I went to get my camera and took a picture showing only grass and sky. And I wrote down: ‘Here a plane cast its shadow on me.’ Where and not true at the same time. It became my way of documenting.”

‘True and False’ sums up the overwhelming impression this exhibition leaves you with: someone constantly looking for new forms to both depict and escape from his time. Mikhailov was here, unmistakably. But how many photographers does he consist of?

Image from the series ‘Crimean Snobbism’, (1982) Photo Boris Mikhailov, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn / Galerie Suzanne Tarasiève

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