“In Soviet days, photography was regarded as subversive. It posed a potential danger, capturing images whose content and impact could not be fully monitored,” Thomas Köhler writes in his essay, “In the Streets”, which introduces Boris Mikhailov’s new monograph, Time Is Out of Joint (Distanz Verlag).
Köhler informs us, “Boris Mikhailov trained as an engineer. In the mid-1960s, he suggested to his superiors that it might be nice to make a short film about the factory where he worked. This short film was Mikhailov’s entry into artistic production. He took photos in a purely private context, too, and according to Mikhailov it was these nudes that drew suspicion when the KGB discovered them in the company laboratory. Photographs of this ilk—even though the subject was his own wife—were seen as pornographic and an expression of Western decadence. Mikhailov felt the force of state control and censorship first-hand: he lost his job and was thereupon confronted with an existential problem. Henceforth he worked entirely as a photographer, earning a living for many years thanks to a side job as an assistant photographic technician.”
It is here in Time is Out of Joint that we see what came of this, of the life that began through the camera lens, of a way of seeing and a way of looking inside the former Soviet Union and after its fall, in a world inhabited by people whose life stories are but a mystery, whose visages belie the hardship of life and death, of a world that is in equal parts as grim and determined as it is aching with loss.
Time is Out of Joint includes a number of different series that bring together works of Mikhailov organized thematically. Among the series is “Case History”, which was created during the period of 1997–1999. As the book notes, “After spending a year in Berlin on a DAAD bursary, Mikhailov returned to Kharkov to find it—on the surface—cleaner, newer, and increasingly like a European city. And yet the social divide was widening as fast as this outer rehabilitation progressed. On the one hand, a middle class was beginning to emerge. On the other more and more people had lost all they had” their jobs, their homes, their status, and the respect of their fellow-citizens. They were known as ‘bomzhes:’ homeless people with no entitlement to social benefits.
“By documenting their conditions and their naked bodies, Boris Mikhailov hope to draw hard-hitting attention to the precarious plight of the poor in his country. At the same time, this piece is designed to capture a piece of Ukrainian history. After so many decades when dark chapters of the past were systematically eradicated or excluded from record by censors, Case History is intended to fill a gap.” This last sentence could speak well for the entire oeuvre of Mikhailov, whose works are unfettered by social or cultural conditioning, showing us the universe through the heart and mind of a single man whose life’s work inspires us to question our assumptions about art and life in one fell swoop.
“The truth never lies in a single picture, but in the relationship between several,” Mikhailov said in conversation. We are free to consider his work within the series, and the series to each other, to consider the evolution of his eye as it traveled the world. We see that there is both comedy and tragedy in the world, and many spaces in between for commentary on the human condition. We witness that which is different, and that which is similar, situating ourselves in relation to the image while also feeling the energy it conveys. This is a tribute to Mikhailov’s mind; his approach is to his subject is as complex as the inner workings of his brain, and we see this in how he treats his series, be it from a conceptual or documentary approach. It is from this array of perspectives that a desire to grasp the meaning and depth of his work is born.
But can we ever understand or ever truly know? Perhaps it is the cumulative effect of Mikhailov’s works that allow us to consider the experience of a shifting tableau, that which exists outside of us and inside of us at the same time, in all times, the ever-present constant of change.