Mikhailov’s Case History series examines the social oppression and devastating poverty of a disenfranchised community in Kharkiv, Ukraine: those who had been left homeless by the rise of the capitalist oligarchy following the collapse of the Soviet Union. “The rich and the homeless—the new classes of a new society—this was, as we had been taught, one of the features of capitalism,” Mikhailov observed. A haunting document of post-Soviet urban conditions, the series captures the failed promise of capitalism with poetry and grit.
Gallery label from 2020
The demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 spelled disaster for many citizens of Mikhailov's native Kharkov, in Ukraine. As the state apparatus collapsed, bleak predictability rapidly gave way to chaos and want. The photographer, whose earlier work includes sympathetic records of communal pastimes, responded with a bitter series that starkly evokes the squalor of desperation, drink, and despair. In the same years, but in another photographic mode altogether, he experimented with flagrantly staged political and sexual satires.
A decade later, as a few made millions, the least fortunate Ukrainians were more desperate still. This untitled work belongs to Mikhailov's bold and risky series Case History, for which he paid Kharkov's outcasts to pose and perform. The best of his new photographs improbably blend the opposing poles of his art. No-nonsense realism and impromptu playacting seamlessly conspire in a persuasive theater of wrenching misery.
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 357.
With Case History, Boris Mikhailov confronts viewers with the effects of the Soviet Union’s collapse on the homeless and marginalized people of Ukraine. To create these raw, color-saturated, large-scale photographs, Mikhailov paid his subjects and worked with them to stage poses inspired by religious and historical paintings. “This is the first time I paid my models,” he explains. “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.”
Additional text from Seeing Through Photographs online course, Coursera, 2016