Boris Mikhailov

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capitalism, everyday life, loneliness, longing, outsider, people
Visual Arts (photography)
Europe, Eastern
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June 10, 2003
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Photographer Boris Mikhailov was born in 1938 in Kharkov and is recognised as one of the most important artists to have emerged from the former Soviet Union. He lives and works in Kharkov and Berlin. For over thirty years his photographs have explored the position of the individual, creating radical and often provocative ways of working. Major solo exhibitions, international photography awards and prize-winning books have brought him public acclaim. Arguably his most important work, ‘Case History’ explores the break-up of the Soviet Union by focussing on its human casualties, the homeless, with an unflinching and powerful gaze.
The leading Ukrainian photographer Boris Mikhailov was born in 1938 in Kharkov. He lives and works in Kharkov and Berlin. For over thirty years his photographs have explored the position of the individual within the historical workings of public ideology. Trained as a technical engineer, he began to take photographs at the age of 28 and was sacked from his factory job when the KGB discovered nude photographs he had taken of his wife. Thus began his full time career as a photographer and he has since become one of the most important artists to have emerged from the former Soviet Union.

Mikhailov has worked in extended series, often quite different from each other in form. In the ‘Private Series’ (from the late 1960s) he explores intimacy and private moments in domestic environments. The ‘Red Series’ (1968-75) takes a playful snapshot style to document everyday situations, drawing the viewer’s attention to red objects, slogans and symbols of the Soviet era, in the background. In 1984, Mikhailov initiated a remarkable project: gluing small black and white photos of everyday occurrences in Kharkov on the back of his uncle’s lecture notes. Later, he added handwritten text fragments. The project was published in 1998 as an elegant art book entitled ‘Unfinished Dissertation’.

Arguably his most important work, ‘Case History’ explores the break-up of the Soviet Union by focussing on its human casualties, the homeless or ‘bomzhes’, living on the margins of Russia’s new economic regime without social support or care. Published in 1999, the series won the Krazna-Krausz Photography Book Award. The unflinching images of dissolution, madness and decaying human wreckage present a dismal portrait of outcast humanity. Mikhailov does not avoid the moral complexities of the new Russia and paid his models to pose in an ambiguous intervention that displaces the images from the purely documentary to a form of staged self-consciousness, although ultimately it only underlines the powerlessness of his subjects.

Over the last decade, Boris Mikhailov has won several major international photography prizes and has built a strong following through many exhibitions and books. A critical perspective combined with empathy, a sense of tragedy and dignity as well as a sense of humour and of the absurdities of life, all carried out in wry, vulgar, playful and intimate photographs. His work documents Ukraine under Soviet rule, the conditions of living in post-communist Eastern Europe, the fallen utopias of the Soviet Union, all interwoven with mediations on lust, longing, togetherness, vulnerability, destitution, aging and death.

Boris Mikhailov won the Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography, 2000. The Foundation stated:

´Boris Mikhailov is unquestionably the leading photographer with a "Soviet background" today. In recent years, his exhibits and books have attracted enormous international attention. At this point in his over thirty year long career, Boris Mikhailov continues to develop his great theme – his narrative of the wreck of the Soviet utopia. Boris Mikhailov’s stance is critical; his work is consistently humanist in approach, with strong emotional elements and a sense of humour that audiences in both East and West have found moving. Despite working under extremely difficult circumstances, he has always succeeded in creating deeply engaging and exciting photographic art.´

SOURCES: articles and reviews listed in weblinks
Author: Judith Staines


Boris Mikhailov was born in 1938 in Kharkov, Ukraine. He lives and works in Kharkov and Berlin. Recipient of the 2000 Hasselblad Foundation International Award and Citibank 2001 Photography Prize, he is recognised as the most outstanding photographer of Soviet origin. His exhibitions and books have attracted enormous international attention. During his thirty year career he has produced works considered as classics, pursuing his great theme which narrates the wreck of the Soviet utopian society.



Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Museum of Modern Art, New York San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California Nancy and Norton Dodge Collection, Zimmerli Museum, New Jersey Finnish Bank, Helsinki, Finland Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam


Exhibition / Installation,
2003 Boris Mikhailov, Fotomuseum Winterthur 2002 TV Mania, Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin The Insulted and the Injured, Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York TV Mania, Galerie der Stadt Schwaz 2001 Boris Mikhailov: Case History & Heiner Müller Projekt, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin BildMuseet, Umea Orchard Gallery, Derry, N. Ireland The Photographic Museum, Helsinki Saatchi Gallery, London 2000 Boris Mikhailov. 2000 Hasselblad Award Winner, Hasselblad Center, Göteburg Boris Mikhailov, The Photographers` Gallery, London Dvir Galerie, Tel Aviv Galerie Barbara Gross, Munich 1999 By the Ground, Museum of Modern Art, Ljubliana, Slovenia Boris Mikhailov, Museo Querini Stampalia, Venice Case History, DAAD Galerie, Berlin Case History and Dance, Scalo Galerie, Zürich Boris Mikhailov, Centre National de la Photographie, Paris 1998 Boris Mikhailov, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam Boris Mikhailov. Les Misérables (About the World), Sprengel Museum, Hannover Peri Center of Photography, Turku 1997 Photomania, DAAD Galerie, Berlin Crimean Grafomania, Galerie in der Brotfabrik, Berlin Hippolyte Photographie Galerie, Helsinki 1996 Boris Mikhailov, Kunsthalle Zürich Boris Mikhailov - A Retrospective, SCCA, Soros Center of Contemporary Art, Kiev, Ukraine 1995 Boris Mikhailov, Portikus, Frankfurt am Main After the Fall, The Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia 1994 Hotel Europa, Foto Festival Rotterdam Perspektief Photographic Center, Rotterdam


2001 Citibank Private Bank Photography Prize
2001 Krazna-Krausz Photography Book Award
2000 Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography
1997 Abbert Renger-Putzsch book prize, Essen, Germany
1996 Award of Coutts Contemporary Art Foundation, Switzerland

1998 Fellowship at the Collegium Helveticum, Zurich, Switzerland
1996-97 Guest artist at DAAD, Berlin, Germany


This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the partner institutions.

Boris Mikhailov Retrospective

(07 April 00 - 21 May 00)


CCA Kiev

CV and images

Galerie Barbara Weiss

Current CV (2003 exhibition)

Hasselblad Foundation

Announcement of 2000 Hasselblad Award Winner.

Citibank Photography Prize

Photography Prize 2001

Guardian review

Review of Case History by Adrian Searle