Boris Mikhailov, Suzi et Cetera (Part 2)

JTF (just the facts): Published by 89books in 2019 (here). Softcover, 204 pages, with 101 color photographs. Includes a booklet with an essays by Kateryna Filyuk. Designed by 89books. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Ukrainian-born Boris Mikhailov is often referred to as one of the most successful artists to emerge from the Soviet Union. Mikhailov started taking photographs in the 1960s, in his late twenties, in his free time just like many of his contemporaries; he would often photograph his wife and friends in casual situations, and inspired by Czechoslovakian and German photo magazines, he also experimented with taking nudes. He used the laboratory at the factory where he was working to develop his negatives (including nude photos of his wife), but they were found and confiscated by the KGB. He was accused of the crime of disseminating pornography, and lost his job as an engineer. After he got fired, Mikhailov dedicated his full time to photography, ultimately using artistic expression to rebel against the repressive system. 

Mikhailov’s photographs, both comedic and tragic, offer an inside view on everyday life during and after the demise of the Soviet Union. His most well known series Case History (reviewed here in a 2011 exhibit at MoMA) documented the decay of his hometown Kharkov in the late 1990s, following the breakdown of the Soviet Union. His portraits of homeless people and outcasts are raw, unflattering, and often disturbing, exposing the devastating poverty, broken social structures, and powerlessness of the times.

With its early color photographs taken during 1960-1970s, Suzi et Cetera (Part 2) offers a less intense portrait of Mikhailov’s hometown. This body of work was included in the exhibition Primrose: Early Colour Photography in Russia and was first published in the book Suzi et Cetera in 2007 by Walther König. This new book offers a deeper selection of images that were not included in the previous publication.

Suzi et Cetera (Part 2) is a softcover horizontal book of comfortable size (the earlier edition was vertical), small, intimate, and easily held in your hands. The photographs are placed on the right side, and occasionally vertical fragments of selected images are repeated on the left side on the following spread, pulling the reader around the corner. There are no captions or texts in the book; a small booklet loosely inserted in the back includes an explanatory text by curator Kateryna Filyuk. 

The Suzi et Cetera series provides a glimpse into Mikhailov’s early artistic life, combining improvised nudes with fragments of daily life, quirky visual humor, and surprisingly elegant color studies. The book opens with a photograph of a casual photoshoot: a blonde woman poses nude in nature, kneeling on a patterned carpet with a white sheet hung behind her in the trees as a makeshift backdrop. The image is both innocent and knowing, aware of artistic convention but filled with playful experimentation. It is followed by an image of a swimming woman’s head, her head floating above a lake or river as she eerily looks up; the color of the water matches the muddy brown of the grimy hill in the background. It is both beautiful and ugly, a visual contrast that Mikhailov consistently explores. 

A number of nudes appear throughout the book – it was clearly a genre that Mikhailov returned to again and again. Women pose on beds and couches, in meadows among wildflowers, on park benches, at the beach, and even hanging in a hammock, the body strangely divided into sections by the fishnet pattern. The images appear rather awkward and imperfect, yet their honest beauty is captivating. Nakedness, casual pleasure, freedom, and roughness are some of the themes explored in the series.

Other images document Mikhailov’s irreverent sense of humor. A man poses with a red pencil in his belly button (much to the horror of a nearby woman in a red bathing suit who covers her face, likely in laughter), another dances with a bottle on his head, a woman poses with a cow, and two women suggestively lick a melting icicle. Mikhailov gets even more surreal with images of up close puckered lips, a mannequin hand left on the armrest of a chair, and a woman’s head placed between the artist’s legs. There is a sense of much needed release in these pictures, the laughter and playacting reinforcing the absurdities of Soviet life.

Mikhailov’s photographs also capture countless ordinary scenes from daily life of Kharkiv, often with the grimly recognizable atmosphere of the Soviet times. Elderly ladies dance at an outdoor club, scavenge in the winter fields, and wash clothes in the river. People wait for the bus or the tram, sell eggs on makeshift tables, teach their newborns to swim, and get into fights in the street. One photograph shows both the struggle and pleasure of Soviet life: a crowd of people are waiting in line (presumably for bread), and two boys, with contented smiles, sit on a wooden fence nearby holding half a dozen loaves.

What is most surprising about this collection of early images is how often Mikhailov’s casual shooting resolved into studies of color or quietly observant still lifes. It’s the small details that make a picture – the blue bottles, the green overcoat, the pink flower in the mouth of a soldier, the green car flanked by a silhouetted hammer and sickle, the black crows in the window, the purple coneflowers, the red pole in winter. Mikhailov makes memorably tactile still lifes of a series of oranges and a bear head, another of a loaf of bread, some onions, and a pickle, a third of a red handbag against green grass, and a fourth of a lovely braid of hair against a patterned blue dress, each one mundane but somehow remarkable.

This series is often described as Mikhailov’s point of transition from amateur to professional photography. What is exciting about these images is how Mikhailov was using photography to document daily life in Soviet society, while at the same time offering incisive social criticism of its repressive system in the only way he knew how. Given the circumstances, the images are more consistently full of joy and beauty than we might have imagined, the very simplest of human pleasures made into memorable photographs.

Collector’s POV: Boris Mikhailov is represented by Suzanne Tarasieve in Paris (here), Barbara Gross Galerie in Munich (here) and Guido Costa Projects in Turin (here). His most recent show in New York was with Dominique Lévy Gallery in 2013 (reviewed here). Mikhailov’s work has only been sporadically available at auction in recent years, with prices ranging between roughly $2000 and $30000. But given that the secondary markets haven’t included a representative sample of his work, gallery retail is likely still the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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