Boris Mikhailov is a photographer from the Ukraine, born in 1938, who works between Berlin and the Ukrainian town of Kharkov, having left the city during the communist era he returned to find that although on the surface capitalism had brought a better standard of living and increased the vibrancy of the city, with the introduction of a rich section of society there was also a new issue with homelessness. Which even if it existed before he would have never been able to document anything which showed communism in an unflattering light. His work comprises of the documentary, the historical and the documentary in a totally unique way.
He has been awarded the 1999 Krazna-Krausz Photography Book Award for his book Case History, the 2000 Hasselblad Foundation International Award and Citibank 2001 Photography Prize and he was also selected for representing the Ukranian Pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale.
His current exhibition at the Sprovieri Gallery on Heddon Street in London's West End showcases work from his whole career but displayed in groups as the three parts of a story; a beginning, a middle and an end.
I asked Mikhailov to talk me through the show, "My feeling about the exhibition is that this is my first experience like this, this is not the result of a special project, this is more about new a possibility to show work around the idea of showing the whole story by showing works in triptych." He told me as we sat in the gallery on opening night, "Showing the beginning, middle and end, it's possible to show the whole story through three images. It's ordinary to show one image to tell a story but this is not one picture but three pictures telling one story. This is play, I am playing here but this is one way to exhibit, a new way."
As preview steadily fills up with people I ask him what is was like to look over past works in this way. "The self-portraits are more about irony, the portraits are more normal, my history as a photographer is that in my country I was one of the first. The self- portrait exists in any culture but maybe in photography, now I try to understand what is a portrait of me and what is a self-portrait of me. A portrait of me is about other people when I make a self-portrait I give something new."
The show contains some Mikhailov's earlier work which was more experimental and abstract, these very beautiful in terms of colour and contain hidden political messages which are not only aesthetically rewarding but also the contrast between the messages in these early works and the strong messages in the later portraits, surrealism aside, starkly shows how suppressive the communist regime really was.
But there is something extra in Boris Mikhailov's portraits of people living in poverty in Eastern Europe, people who are living in desperate conditions with no hope of it coming to an end but somehow there is an accessibility to work, rather than simply showing a horrific scene he pays his subjects and stages scenes which he photographs. He also makes surrealist self portraits and more abstract works of himself and others.
"...but this is about other people, it's more about truth of itself and of me. How I can show what is important about something? This is about people and what has happened in their lives. Sometimes it's difficult to see someone in a really bad situation, it's hard for people to look at but adding that humour and emotion to it makes them connect to the subject more." He goes on to say he thinks this is becomming something universal in photography, "I think this is the contemporary direction for everybody, for example see not so nice feel what those pictures can make you feel so you need to show something special and the special thing can be something broken and something humanistic, this is the combination which I try and find and what I am trying to find in the show."
The show features photographs from the award winning book The Wedding which documents a staged wedding between a homeless couple. "I see them on the streets and I am not friends with them but we would often see each other and exchange a smile, it's enough to make a bond.... In our society there are people without any hope for a normal life."
These pictures are a real gift from a great photographer, well worth a look.
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