June 1, 2011  |  Artists, Collection & Exhibitions
A Conversation with Boris Mikhailov

Boris Mikhailov. Untitled, from the series Case History. 1997–98. Chromogenic color print. Courtesy the artist, Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York, and Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin. © 2011 Boris Mikhailov

Boris Mikhailov is one of the leading photographers from the countries that formerly constituted the Soviet Union, and his work is currently on view in the exhibition Boris Mikhailov: Case History at the Museum (through September 5). For over 40 years, Mikhailov has explored the position of the individual within the mechanisms of public ideology, touching on such subjects as Ukraine under Soviet rule, the living conditions in post-communist Eastern Europe, and the fallen ideals of the Soviet Union. Although deeply rooted in a historical context, his work incorporates profoundly engaging and personal narratives of humor, lust, vulnerability, aging, and death. This exhibition is selected from a larger body of work titled Case History, which comprises 400 photographs and was published as a book in 1999. Arguably his most challenging project, it explores the deeply troubling circumstances of bomzhes—the homeless—a new class that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Once you see the pictures from Case History, they are impossible to forget.  They are touching, devastating, and shocking. I feel that a museum should be a place that encourages debate and discussions presenting challenging ideas about the world. Boris’s work evokes many strong emotions and questions, so I asked him to share his thoughts about Case History.

Eva Respini: How did the series Case History come about?

Boris Mikhailov: What is truth or not truth? My feelings about this series have changed over time, so this is how I understand it now. I am from the Ukraine, but had been living in Berlin for a year on a stipend. After being away, I came back to my home town of Kharkov and it was very different from when I left. What was different? There were lots of color advertisements and other signs of the new capitalism, but when you looked more closely you could see a new society of people—the homeless.

Boris Mikhailov. Untitled, from the series Case History. 1997–98. Chromogenic color print. Courtesy the artist, Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York, and Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin. © 2011 Boris Mikhailov

ER: There were no homeless people in the Soviet era?

BM: There may have been some, but it was not common. Everybody had to have a job and the homeless were certainly not photographed. At that time it was illegal to photograph anything that made life and society look bad. For example, I was once arrested in Soviet times because I made pictures of people drinking, which did not fit into the Soviet propaganda. Now I was able to take pictures of what had been forbidden before, and this presented new possibilities to me as a photographer. With Case History, I saw it as my social responsibility to photograph these people. I saw how homeless people were helped in the West, but the government in the Ukraine had no money to do this. I think of the United States, when photographers like Dorothea Lange were hired by the government to photograph the Great Depression.

ER:  How did you find the people in your photographs?

BM:  First I should say that everything I do is in collaboration with my wife, Vita. When I saw somebody that I wanted to photograph, who was interesting to me, she would talk to them and help them. Then we would talk with them and collaborate with them to make a picture. They had no money, so I would pay them, to help them.

Boris Mikhailov. Untitled, from the series Case History. 1997–98. Chromogenic color print. Courtesy the artist, Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York, and Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin. © 2011 Boris Mikhailov

ER:  I know the issue of paying your models is controversial.

BM:  This is the first time I paid my models. I don’t think this is an issue. If models get paid to appear in an advertisement, nobody cares. Why can’t I? This gave me the possibility to photograph them, and gave them the possibility to live. This is what Western photographers would do when they came to Russia to make pictures. The models would be paid as if they were posing nude at the art academy.

ER:  I am glad you brought this up—there is a lot of nudity in the pictures.

BM:  Nakedness is not important in many ways. Survival was important. You have to understand what was happening at that time. The Ukraine was very very poor, and everything was changing. Middle class people became poor and only very few people became rich. Ideas of modesty and morality were changing. Morality was broken, and prostitution was everywhere. I was trying to find a way to photograph this. These people posed nude without shame. Also, I had just come from Berlin, where there were plenty of nude people on the beach—there was a different idea of nakedness in the West.

Boris Mikhailov. Untitled, from the series Case History. 1997–98. Chromogenic color print. Courtesy the artist, Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York, and Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin. © 2011 Boris Mikhailov

ER: What do you say to people who do not think these are “real” documentary pictures?

BM: Documentary cannot be truth. Documentary pictures are one-sided, only one part of the conversation. Anyway, documentary pictures are not possible anymore with digital technology as nobody believes in the truth of pictures. These are real people in Case History. The only thing that changes is how they are posed and that they are naked. I posed these people in poses that remind me of the history of art or of gestures that I saw in life. Sometimes I asked them to repeat a gesture that they made so I could photograph it. With Case History, I wanted to find a metaphoric image of life. For example, how do you show prostitution? Nakedness doesn’t begin to describe this condition, so I asked my models to pull up their clothes as a metaphor for their life. For Case History, old documentary methods weren’t possible—it was important and necessary for me to find new methods to show this life.

Note:  This conversation took place with Boris and Vita Mikhailov over lunch on May 20, 2011, and was transcribed and edited for clarity. Some responses were translated from Russian with the help of Vita Mikhailov.


Not sure I understand or agree with the concept of paid “documentary” images. The gritty truth of the bomzhes situation could be clear enough without the commentary and staged photography. Still nice work Boris.

Thank you for organizing this exhibition, I look forward to seeing it.

It seems like there a curious typo in the description of the show at the main exhibition calendar. It mentions “everyday reality of a disenfranchised community living on the margins of Russia’s new economic regime”. Since these people live in Kharkov, the margins are surely those of the Ukraine’s economic regime.

Don’t you think it’s slightly perverse to show the people who cannot withstand offered money to show their really bad side? The captured .0something per cent of Russian/Ukrainian may exist anywhere, if you’ve been to NYC, you should see homeless people here too. Or anywhere across the States. The images that you’re showing has nothing to do with real Russia or Ukraine. Other people who live in the countries should be shown too. Bomzhes are the consequence of Western invasion, the product of it. Please do not blame the Soviet Union for their existence, as it was a great country with the really silly last ruler – Gorbachev, who sold the country to the West.

Igor, go home

Igor, for a while I was a homeless person in the USSR. The only places I could find to sleep or rest, and somehow warm up in the winter were the railroad stations in Moscow. And even there I had to hide and run from the Soviet police- militia. No help, no charity, no shelters, nothing of that sort.
So, don’t tell me about the Great Soviet Union.
What do you know about it?
I suspect – nothing.

Hirsh Ben Dov

Boris Mikhailov seems to be of two minds on the importance of nudity in his work. Far from being “unimportant” it seems crucial to the Case History images on view at MoMA. I thought it was interesting that he sought a visual metaphor for the breakdown of modesty and morality, and the photographic assault on their privacy accomplishes that. I experienced embarrassment for many of his subjects, but I also thought the deliberate violation of their dignity upped the shock value enough to prevent us from walking on by unseeing as it is so easy to do even on our own streets to this day.

I agree with Boris there is no truth that can be readily supplied by the lens and the term ‘documentary’. However I was shocked when Michael Moore doctored an image of Charlton Heston in Bowling for Colombine no matter how much I detested the NRA, it felt like he was saying well the ‘right’ play dirty tricks so its ok for the left (and me) to do this also…I’m hearing similar tendencies in Boris’s answer re payment of models…and I find it disturbing to say the least. I don’t think anyone who is making pictures like these can mount such a defence with any kind of authenticity.

I am concerned about the nudity of homeless souls who live in extremely cold weather. As a feminist and an artist, this is always a red flag. Although I have not seen the show, I wonder how many female nudes there are as opposed to male nudes in his work?

Hirsh Ben Dov, you look ridiculous with your invented story, what you trying to say?
Igor, I agree with each your word. I can`t understand this “art”, and people who made this.

This is very easy to be “art”. “At that time it was illegal to photograph anything that made life and society look bad”. Very easy. Lets make a fortune by telling the part of History that everyone has been taught to “know”. Will you tell us something new mr. Mikhailov? Something that is new through the medioum of photography? Guys, Lets listen of new stories not the ones that are reproduced by television and either true or false they are, first of all, KNOWN stories.

Leave a Comment

* required information

E-mail address*

Your comments*

Spam check*
Cri_71602 Please enter the text in the image.