Photographer Boris Mikhailov was born in 1938 in Kharkov and is recognised as one of the most important artists to have emerged from the former Soviet Union. He lives and works in Kharkov and Berlin. For over thirty years his photographs have explored the position of the individual, creating radical and often provocative ways of working. Major solo exhibitions, international photography awards and prize-winning books have brought him public acclaim. Arguably his most important work, ‘Case History’ explores the break-up of the Soviet Union by focussing on its human casualties, the homeless, with an unflinching and powerful gaze.The leading Ukrainian photographer Boris Mikhailov was born in 1938 in Kharkov. He lives and works in Kharkov and Berlin. For over thirty years his photographs have explored the position of the individual within the historical workings of public ideology. Trained as a technical engineer, he began to take photographs at the age of 28 and was sacked from his factory job when the KGB discovered nude photographs he had taken of his wife. Thus began his full time career as a photographer and he has since become one of the most important artists to have emerged from the former Soviet Union.
Mikhailov has worked in extended series, often quite different from each other in form. In the ‘Private Series’ (from the late 1960s) he explores intimacy and private moments in domestic environments. The ‘Red Series’ (1968-75) takes a playful snapshot style to document everyday situations, drawing the viewer’s attention to red objects, slogans and symbols of the Soviet era, in the background. In 1984, Mikhailov initiated a remarkable project: gluing small black and white photos of everyday occurrences in Kharkov on the back of his uncle’s lecture notes. Later, he added handwritten text fragments. The project was published in 1998 as an elegant art book entitled ‘Unfinished Dissertation’.
Arguably his most important work, ‘Case History’ explores the break-up of the Soviet Union by focussing on its human casualties, the homeless or ‘bomzhes’, living on the margins of Russia’s new economic regime without social support or care. Published in 1999, the series won the Krazna-Krausz Photography Book Award. The unflinching images of dissolution, madness and decaying human wreckage present a dismal portrait of outcast humanity. Mikhailov does not avoid the moral complexities of the new Russia and paid his models to pose in an ambiguous intervention that displaces the images from the purely documentary to a form of staged self-consciousness, although ultimately it only underlines the powerlessness of his subjects.
Over the last decade, Boris Mikhailov has won several major international photography prizes and has built a strong following through many exhibitions and books. A critical perspective combined with empathy, a sense of tragedy and dignity as well as a sense of humour and of the absurdities of life, all carried out in wry, vulgar, playful and intimate photographs. His work documents Ukraine under Soviet rule, the conditions of living in post-communist Eastern Europe, the fallen utopias of the Soviet Union, all interwoven with mediations on lust, longing, togetherness, vulnerability, destitution, aging and death.
Boris Mikhailov won the Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography, 2000. The Foundation stated:
´Boris Mikhailov is unquestionably the leading photographer with a "Soviet background" today. In recent years, his exhibits and books have attracted enormous international attention. At this point in his over thirty year long career, Boris Mikhailov continues to develop his great theme – his narrative of the wreck of the Soviet utopia. Boris Mikhailov’s stance is critical; his work is consistently humanist in approach, with strong emotional elements and a sense of humour that audiences in both East and West have found moving. Despite working under extremely difficult circumstances, he has always succeeded in creating deeply engaging and exciting photographic art.´