New York Photo Review
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Making Caribbean Dance by Susanna Sloat
The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino
Soho Photo Gallery
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Down and Out in Kharkov, Ukraine
Boris Mikhailov
Case History
Untitled, from the series Case History  by Boris Mikhailov. Source: moma.org
Boris Mikhailov, "Untitled, from the series Case History " 1997-8

There aren’t many photography exhibitions that can provoke a visceral reaction bordering on disgust, but Boris Mikhailov’s Case History certainly will. It’s a series of 19 very large (93 x 50 inches) in-your-face color photographs of homeless Ukrainian men and women — hard to look at but even harder to forget. The intent of these images, which include half naked men lying in the snow and women pulling aside their clothes to show their breasts, buttocks or pelvic area, was to reveal a painful truth about life in the capitalist world of the post-Soviet Union era: namely, some people were suffering as never before. The Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 created a new social class, the bomzhes, or homeless. Under the old Communist system, there were few, if any, bomzhes, because everyone had to have a job. Not anymore.

Mikhailov, one of the best known photographers in Russia, has spent the past 40 years documenting the individual’s role in society. During Soviet rule, he was forbidden to take photographs that didn’t portray society in a positive way and once got arrested when he disobeyed. In the more open post-Soviet era, Mikhailov found new opportunities to explore social change. In 1996, he returned to his hometown of Kharkov in Ukraine and observed that drastic economic changes had occurred. Besides seeing a new capitalist culture, he also noticed the emergence of the bomzhes. He felt it was his responsibility to photograph these people, people the Ukrainian government couldn’t afford to help. Mikhailov proceeded to find some willing subjects among the homeless population and offered them hot meals and cash in exchange for being his models. The result was his book of 400 photographs called Case History published in 1999; the MoMA exhibition is based on selections from that book.

Untitled, from the series Case History  by Boris Mikhailov. Source: moma.org
Boris Mikhailov, "Untitled, from the series Case History " 1997-8

In an interview with Eva Respini, the exhibition’s curator, Mikhailov justified the payments to his subjects as a quid pro quo: “This gave me the possibility to photograph them and gave them the possibility to live.” It also gave him the opportunity to photograph them naked. He explains, ”...everything was changing. Middle class people became poor...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.” Perhaps their nudity is a metaphor for their exposure to the world whereas under the old social structure of communism, they always felt protected.

One powerful example is Mikhailov’s untitled image of a man with his shirt pulled up to show a tattoo of Lenin over his heart; a hand from behind pinches his nipple. My take: His display of loyalty and belief in the old system has failed him. He’s feeling squeezed and is on his own now.

Well, maybe not entirely. In another photograph, the same tattooed man is shirtless; a woman, fully dressed for winter, stands next to him in a snow-covered forest. Another untitled image shows a young woman lying in bed in a classic nude pose, staring at the ceiling and detached from her world. Has this woman turned to prostitution to survive? Some of the more repulsive photographs include one of a man trying to scratch his scarred, scab-filled back. Even worse is the one of a woman who bends over to bare her buttocks covered with rashes, scabs and cuts. Some of the other images are more benign since the bomzhes in them are fully clothed but showing signs of distress.

Still, after viewing a half dozen or so, you realize that these so-called “models” have mostly succeeded in humiliating themselves while the photographer is wielding the power he only dreamed about under Communist rule. Okay, he got his message across but at what cost? His homeless are also nameless and their stories remain untold. We’re left with life size images of some unlucky people who society would like to hide but can’t.

This is an exhibition designed to provoke and the only way to find out whether you agree with Mikhailov’s social contract is to see the work for yourself, but preferably after lunch or dinner.

Boris Mikhailov
Case History


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Sunday, May 29 to
Monday, September 5, 2011
Hours: Weds to Mon, 10:30 to 5:30, Fri to 8
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