It is quite an experience to walk into the Museum of Modern Art on a carefree summer’s day and be confronted with Boris Mikhailov's photographs. Nineteen larger-than-life pictures surround the viewer. A man lies sleeping, possibly passed out, a striking figure in a black coat against the white snow. Another man faces away from the lens, his bare back revealing blood gathering in the sores. A thin young girl with sallow, translucent skin, shorn hair and a pink shirt, is captured in an odd, distant gaze.
Born in Ukraine, Mr Mikhailov shot these photographs in Kharkov in 1997 and 1998. He visited this industrial Ukrainian city after the fall of the Soviet Union and found that many people, including those who were previously middle class, had been displaced and were now homeless. Mr Mikhailov was disturbed that despite the “shiny wrapper” of Western modernity, people were starving, suffering from disease and resorting to prostitution. He spent a year taking the pictures that would eventually become “Case History", a 400-photograph series and book. The MoMA show is the first time these pictures have been exhibited in the America. Some of the series, shown at a much smaller size, are also on view at the Tate Modern in the show “Photography: New Documentary Forms” until March 2012.
Mr Mikhailov envisioned himself as a type of modern Dorthea Lange, documenting a class of people that would be otherwise invisible. He makes it impossible for viewers to look away. The figures plead with their eyes, every sore, every wrinkle depicted in Technicolor. “Harsh conditions. He had to make harsh and disturbing pictures,” said Eva Respini, the show's curator.
But in an important twist on the rules of documentary photography, the pictures are staged. Mr Mikhailov paid the participants in the pictures, and appropriated poses from the Western art-history cannon, such as a striking recreation of "La Pieta" (pictured). Many of the people are in states of undress, which Mr Mikhailov uses to make a connection between literal nakedness and a greater vulnerability. As he told Ms Respini in an interview: “Nakedness doesn’t begin to describe this condition, so I asked my models to pull up their clothes as a metaphor for their life.”
The results are unsettling. The knowledge that the pictures have been directed creates some dissonance. The poses and costumes keep the subjects at a distance even as they make their lives feel more profound. Manipulated to feel miserable and occasionally darkly titillated, the viewer feels implicated, even exploited.
When asked why he didn’t rely on conventional documentary methods, Mr Mikhailov told Ms Respini that “documentary cannot be truth. Documentary pictures are one-sided, only one part of the conversation.” Not everyone may agree with his tactics, but it is hard to look away from the awful truth of his staged pictures.
Picture Credit: Boris Mikhailov "Untitled", from the series Case History 1997-98. Courtesy the artist, Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York, and Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin © 2011 Boris Mikhailov