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June 9, 2011 6:12 pm

Boris Mikhailov: Case History, Museum of Modern Art, New York

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Boris Mikhailov takes powerful but distressingly exploitative pictures of the homeless. In the name of social responsibility, his photographs degrade. For the sake of truth, they beautify. The monumental photos from Mikhailov’s Case History series, wedged into a single gallery at the Museum of Modern Art, aspire to a sublime repulsiveness. These brutal portraits catalogue a city of the mad and the dissolute, of drunks and addicts who undress, sprawl, and supplicate on command. They touch each other and themselves. They bare their sores, exposing the stigmata of debasement and disease. They have fed the dregs of their humanity to Mikhailov’s hungry lens.

Untitled images from Mikhailov’s ‘Case History’ (1997-98)

With these works of vanity masquerading as compassion, the artist doesn’t alleviate the suffering of the needy or celebrate their dignity. Instead, he capitalises on misery and flaunts his own expressive freedom.

Mikhailov was born in Ukraine in 1938, a time of famine and violence that has left few visual traces. For decades, the Soviets blocked any images hostile to their “moral spirit”. A snapshot of a frozen corpse, a grim-faced worker or a foraging housewife might spark doubt about the Union’s utopian destiny. Unhappiness was considered counter-revolutionary, and had to be suppressed.

Mikhailov worked as an engineer in a camera factory until KGB agents discovered naked pictures he had taken of his wife. Suddenly jobless, he supported himself as an underground entrepreneur, enlarging and printing snapshots from customers’ family albums. He also exhibited his own work in small galleries and, after the fall of Communism, finally gained some attention for hand-coloured monochromes of everyday life.

In 1997 he returned to his home town of Kharkov after a year in Berlin and found a city transitioning clumsily into capitalism. The rich paraded their fresh fortunes; the poor sank deeper into penury or fell into the new society’s chasms, or were spat out on to the street. The Soviets had managed to suppress homelessness, or hide it, but with the apparatchiks gone, the bomzhi (those of uncertain address) suddenly materialised in Mikhailov’s field of vision – and now he was free to capture them on film.

“I saw it as my social responsibility to photograph these people,” he says in an interview with the show’s curator, Eva Respini, on the MoMA website. “I saw how homeless people were helped in the west, but the government in Ukraine had no money to do this. I think of the United States, when photographers like Dorothea Lange were hired by the government to photograph the Great Depression.”

Mikhailov’s oeuvre bears scant relationship to Lange’s Depression propaganda. Lange sought out those who had been brought low but whose situation might improve under New Deal programmes. She leveraged their dignity for political ends, but she never relinquished her empathy or her resolution to portray battered humanity as noble and grave.

Mikhailov does the opposite. His cold, controlling eye demands abasement, which he gets by plunging his subjects even lower than they already are. A wall text reassures us that his photos “are collaborations, sometimes the result of a spontaneous moment, other times directed by the artist”. What the text doesn’t say is that the photographer often paid his subjects, and posed them in attitudes that gratified his eye. Knowing this changes one’s perceptions of the photographs. That’s the problem with fudging the difference between observation and re-enactment: suddenly everything looks fake.

The artist repels all ethical criticism with an arsenal of well-honed rationalisations. On the subject of payments, he says: “I don’t think this is an issue. If models get paid to appear in an advertisement, nobody cares. Why can’t I? They give me the possibility to photograph them, and I gave them the possibility to live.”

He doesn’t appear to grasp the power imbalance that governs the relationship and ripens it for exploitation. Paying the destitute only amplifies their abjection. Will you do this for cash? And that? How about this? When at some point in mid-project he was beset by a whisper of self-doubt, he asked a friend how to proceed. He got a sardonic green light: “Give them money and let them beat each other.” Fortunately, the photographer decided not to take his experiment to that logical conclusion.

The comparison that Mikhailov makes between his models and the professionally pretty women in magazines is disingenuous, and he knows it. In the same MoMA interview, he lets slip what he’s really about: “I wanted to find a kind of metaphoric image of life,” he explains. “For example, how do you show prostitution? Nakedness doesn’t begin to describe this condition, so I asked my models to pull up their clothes as a metaphor for life.”

That’s cleverly put, but when desperate people strip and grapple for cash so that big, glossy pictures of them can be published and sold at the Pace/MacGill Gallery, those are not metaphoric acts. By now, most of the cast of Mikhailov’s reality show are dead, but their likenesses survive to titillate the voyeur in all of us.

More offensively still, Mikhailov taught his glue-sniffers and madmen to ape religious paintings. He posed a young addict like a bony Jesus come down from the cross. A bloated drunk mimes the gesticulations of Mary Magdalene. This time the metaphor glides across the surface: the bomzhi are Christlike augurs of redemption and, at the same time, anti-heroes of a socialist realist nightmare.

By repackaging real outcasts in the trappings of aesthetic tradition, he turns people into abstractions – graphic elements in an anti-capitalist critique. His invocations of civic duty mask a palpable indifference to actual individuals. He treasures their visible suffering for the same reason that the Soviets censored it: because experience matters only if it aids the pursuit of a great collective goal.

‘Boris Mikhailov: Case History’, until September 5,

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