Boris Mikhailov

Mirror of Society

There is no totalitarian regime that does not fear the power of images. If you used a camera in public in the then Soviet Union you immediately attracted the militia’s attention. And if you were not an official government reporter, then you were suspected of spying. Photography, at least in the official version, was largely press photography and duty-bound to portray the achievements of socialist society in a favorable light. Artistic photography existed, if at all, only in the safe haven of amateurism. You were permitted to photograph whatever you liked in private and develop your prints in your own washbasin at home. And the “amateur photographer” had a special relationship to his motif or model, characterized by such values as proximity, familiarity or affinity. It was from this setting that Boris Mikhailov emerged. His wide-ranging oeuvre, consisting of snapshots, trivial photos, hand-colored prints, photojournalism and self-staged pieces arose in the course of the last forty years – but prior to the 1990s had hardly ever gone on public display.

The photographs Mikhailov has brought together under the title of “Case History” were taken in 1997 and 1998 in his hometown of Charkov in the Ukraine. Only some of the aesthetically milder items are on show here. In its entirety, the “Case History” documents the dark side to Perestroika: dilapidated houses, ruinous streets, abandoned factories, miserable markets, and above all neglected men, women and children – all of them left stranded by post-socialist society.

The pictures are shocking, for Mikhailov presents Charkov’s homeless close-up, in part naked, and almost always without any ethically conventional or aesthetic filtering that would allow us viewers to gain some sort of inner distance from what we see. “I know people do not want to look at such photos,” says Boris Mikhailov, “but only if you look at misery in a picture do you start to notice it in the street.”

Biographical information

1938

born in Kharkov, former USSR

1966

starts to photograph, was trained as a technica engineer before

1997

Albert Renger-Patzsch Award, European photographic book projects with the support of the Dietrich Oppenberg Foundation, Museum Folkwang, Essen

2000

The Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography, Gothenborg

2001

Kraszna-Krausz Book Awards for the best books on photography, London; The Citybank Private Bank Photography Prize, London

lives and works in Berlin and Kharkov