Boris Mikhailov, Yesterday’s Sandwich II

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by Super Labo (here). Clothbound hardcover with tipped in image, 104 pages, with 90 color reproductions. Includes an essay by Vitaly Patsyukov. In an edition of 1000 copies. Design by Koichi Hara/Hichiro. (Cover and spread shots below.)

This body of work was first published by Phaidon in 2006 (and reprinted in 2009.) That edition contained 52 unbound cards in a slipcase.

Comments/Context: By its very nature, a photograph made from sandwiched negatives expresses an inherent duality. It combines two full frame images together, right on top of each other, creating a transparent oscillating effect where the images wrestle for dominance, and in some cases, merge into a new hybrid union. And unlike the in-camera multiple exposure, the sandwiched negative print made in the darkroom can easily combine images from wholly different sources, places, and times, opening up broader avenues of experimentation and imagination.

Photographers have used the complex layering effects of the sandwiched negative print in a variety of sophisticated ways. In the 1970s, Robert Heinecken merged fronts and backs of magazine pages, and inserted provocative images of war and pornography into mainstream publications, exposing the hypocrisies of both the media and its readers. And in the 1980s, Mark Morrisroe used sandwiched negatives more personally, bringing nudes, still life objects, gay pornography, and even his own x-rays and dental records into shifting expressions of inner and outer lives. In general, the form lends itself well to resonant mixing, where surreal combinations, dreamlike constructions, and jarring opposites and juxtapositions are all possible.

Boris Mikhailov’s sandwiched images, using his own photographs from the 1960s and 1970s as raw material, provide a particularly poignant portrait of Soviet life, and in particular, the separation between public and private lives that took place under that regime. With freedoms of all kinds curtailed significantly by the government, everyday existence took on a suffocating grey tone, and the only forms of personal expression that survived were ones that took place in secret. Mikhailov’s photographs from this early period in his artistic career are filled with this public/private friction, where bleak images of snowy days and grim, depressed circumstances are balanced by small moments of individual rebellion and expression, usually taking the form of easy going nudity, bawdy joking, or hidden joys. In the past few years, the Ukrainian photographer’s early work has gotten a much deeper excavation – the 2015 photobook Diary (reviewed here) and the 2019 publication Suzi et Cetera (Part 2) (reviewed here) both unearthed unexpectedly strong imagery from those uncertain times, and this photobook Yesterday’s Sandwich II continues in this progression, expanding on a smaller 2007 release of images from his sandwiched negative body of work.

The trauma in Mikhailov’s image combinations lies right on the surface, like an elegant smack in the face. The world on fire, or going up in flames, is a repeated visual motif: a woman seems to gently lie in the grass, surrounded by an inferno of burning brush and orange smoke; an ugly dumpster fire in a vacant lot seems to release a cloud of smoke that resembles a young woman; and an older woman trudges through the winter atop a bed of fiery spaghetti noodles like burning coals. Bloody, pus-dripping injuries provide a similar commentary of the decayed health of the state. Burnt, scarred legs hang behind a young child at the lakeside, and another pair of kids seem spattered with blood at a tourist site, while open wounds erupt from snowy hillsides and village pathways, as though the land itself was diseased.

Mikhailov has particular dark irreverent fun in his images of soldiers, tormenting them with all kinds of unlikely trials. In one work, an oversized hand drips sand on the head of a soldier sitting on the rocks near the water. In another, a woman sitting on a park bench playfully lifts her skirt to allow small soldiers walking on the rocks to get underneath. Mikhailov plays similar tricks on soldiers wearing gas masks, attacking them with a dense field of ice crystals and a purple flower whose yellow interior looks like a sickly explosion in the dark sky.

Many of Mikhailov’s most striking combinations follow the visual pathways of photographic Surrealism, giving still lifes and portraits strange, dreamlike echoes. A woman’s face is replaced by a skull with a creepy chicken’s foot coming out of the eye socket. Two young girls are trapped inside a birdcage. Another woman has her body become a milk bottle. The sun in the sky over a wintry street scene turns out to be a fried egg. And a woman’s white dress dissolves into the froth of a flowing river. All of these constructions are evidence of Mikhailov’s visual inventiveness – he saw that falling raindrops could become a spiderweb and used these kinds of associations to tease out deeper psychological fears and anxieties.

The nude body holds a particular place of significance in Mikhailov’s early photography, as getting naked seems to have been a playfully effective (and private) way to express individual rebellion against the controls of the Soviet regime. His sandwiched works use nudes (and images of nude statuary) repeatedly, in works that are alternately sensual, silly, tender, vulnerable, and even melancholy. At his most irreverent and rude, Mikhailov makes a face with round breasts for eyes, impales a nude on a phallic tree, has a pole vaulter jump over a bent over rear end, and covers a woman’s nude body with religious icons and a gold encrusted face between her legs. In other works, he is more interested in formal interplay, comparing a mirrored nude with a doubled gate or covering nudes with scratched paint, textured brickwork, or long carpets. And in still others, his mood feels wistful and nostalgic, mixing a lakeside nude with a wedding portrait, having nudes climb around on jungle gyms, swings, and playground equipment in childlike joy, casting a snowy nude as a bride with a bed sheet veil, and filling a nude with a flowing winter crowd. The range of these expressions is subtle and nuanced; sure, he has racy fun with a nude and a long sausage, but he also infuses ordinary nudes with a sophisticated variety of metaphorical visions and emotional temperatures.

The design of Yesterday’s Sandwich II is straightforward. Size is perhaps the most important design choice – the book is relatively small and intimate, with the bright color reproductions nearly filling the pages, giving the photobook a close-in feel.

As more and more of Mikhailov’s back history is filled in, his place as major 20th century photographer is being further cemented. Undeniably, there are some truly great works in this selection of images, and the overall consistency across the entire body of imagery is surprisingly strong. Against the backdrop of the stagnation and catastrophe of the Soviet Union, Mikhailov’s art feels richly sensual and actively radical, while still operating with personal resonance and human gentleness. Even when he makes a racy visual joke, his constructions are unexpectedly moving, the stubborn effort of reaching for freedom inside such a strictly controlled world all the more distressingly heroic.

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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