Everything Upfront: A review of Boris Mikhailov at C/O Berlin

Born in Kharkiv, Ukraine in 1938, the life of Boris Mikhailov has been encompassed by the struggles and turmoil of individuals across the globe, including himself.

Photos from Mikahilov’s exhibit

When first looking to create a career, Mikhailov opted to become an electrical engineer but also found time to dabble in the artistic realm of photography. He eventually developed an interest in photographing documentary, candid and street photography and between 1968-1975, shot his acquaintances, friends and female partners.

However, with the strict rules of the Soviet Union, some of the contexts of Mikhailov’s work was deemed unfit and he was stripped of his engineering job as a result.

From here, the camera was his sole calling. Since adjusting his career path, the talents of Mikhailov took the world by storm as his artistic yet realist focused eye. One of Mikhailov’s most famous works is a collection of more than 400 photographs surrounding the everyday life of lower-class citizens in Kharkiv, Ukraine, his home town.

In the exhibit entitled Case History: Before sleep and after drinking, Mikhailov uses his artistic eye to capture the struggles of the former Soviet-ruled city by photographing men, women and children in some of their most vulnerable states.

When Russian rule left Ukraine, the citizens of the country were almost forgotten. Many were poor and diseased, living lives that were swept under the rug and disregarded about.

There was little information as to what exactly was happening inside the country during communist rule, almost as if it was a forgotten city, and Mikhailov saw an opportunity to use his lenses to show their story to the world.

When the collection first came out, the images taken from his camera were shocking and rightfully so.

Now in celebration of Mikhailov’s 80th birthday, C/O Berlin has made it a point to allow these images to resurface and continue to serve their purpose for society over 50 years later. Looking at the exhibit itself, the thought process behind C/O Berlin’s display of the photographs emphasizes how the gallery wanted to exhibit the pieces in a new light.

Organized into one room, all of the photographs were placed in either small or large simply brown wooden frames and categorized depending on the subject of the image. In some cases, the pictures were grouped together with the common topic of disease, sexuality, injury or simply put, everyday life.

Photos from Mikahilov’s exhibit

Whether in 8×10 inch frames or printed large enough to take up an entire section of the wall, the photographs worked together to tell the intimate stories of people living in a shattered Ukraine at the time. In some cases, the images were specifically placed to work together as a photo series, telling a chronological story of one or more individuals evoking a certain eerie and sympathetic feel for the individuals.

The design of the gallery mimics a very classical one and shows off the photography without distracting the viewer. The monochromatic flooring, the wooden frames and the lighting are all there to show the simplicity of the exhibition and invite the viewer to take a raw look into the lives of real people and the very real issues they face.

Boris Mikhailov’s ability to produce a collection of images that portray such a heavy topic emphasized around poverty, naked bodies, sexuality and disease are a very challenging one, as expressed by C/O Berlin themselves.

“(He) is one of the leading figures in contemporary photography and represents, both politically and artistically, a new post-Soviet generation” and his work has been some of the most important photos in the industry when dealing with documentary photography.