Boris Mikhailov, “Untitled” from the series Case History, (1997-98)

I awoke from a daze when I walked into Boris Mikhailov’s Case History at MoMA. All of the sudden the white walls and sleek designs I’d come to expect from Friday-night strolls were replaced by muted flesh tones and a feeling of being watched. It was almost as if I’d switched roles with the work. Not able to shake the feeling, I began to internally justify why I was so impacted by a few images and listing all the predictable ways they seemed exploitative, but that didn’t help. I’d been affected in a way I couldn’t pinpoint.

There are a lot of photographs of homeless people, and a lot of photographers claiming to focus on the subject, but Case History is unique; maybe because seeing it now adds a prophetic overtone. Began just after the fall of communism in Ukraine, this series shows how far the middle class can fall in a capitalist system, and since the middle class here in the US is feeling oppressed today, I scheduled an interview with the exhibition’s curator, Eva Respini, to ask about her motivations and if she thought the series had such poignancy.

*   *   *

Eva Respini, Associate Curator at MoMA, Department of Photography

Eva Respini: This body of work, Case History, is from 1996–97, and consists of about 400 pictures, so what you see here is just a tiny fraction. They’re shocking in many ways. Having seen them in reproduction as a book first, when I saw them this size I was amazed by how it changed their meaning. These pictures stand between two points: the documentary tradition of photography and something that’s much more contemporary, staged and about tableau. I’ve always thought this body of work was very important.

Boris is quite well known in Europe. He’s had a lot of solo shows there, but really hasn’t been shown that much in the States other than a solo show at the ICA in Boston. In this gallery we’re thinking about artists and bodies of work that we’ve committed to previously. We’ve collected Boris’s work, shown him in New Photography in 1993, and I thought it would be great to bring this body of work to a larger audience. It’s tough, it’s very singular and I think it hasn’t been shown enough. To me, it’s very much of its moment, and of a particular history, but it’s also very timely if you think about the recession and certain issues here in the U.S.

Tom Winchester: Viewers may not want to be reminded they’re in the US after its fall from world dominance. Do you think in some way we want to forget about these images?

ER: I have to say I’m very pleased with the attention its gotten. There are several people in this room, spending time here, sitting on this bench, looking for a while and that was the kind of thing I was not expecting. I thought it might be of interest to the photo community, but I didn’t really expect it would be a place where people would hang out. We have a lot of warning signs surrounding the show, which lets our viewers know ahead of time about some of the photographs’ graphic nature. The word we used was “disturbing” because the show isn’t just about being graphic or nudity. For me, that’s not what is disturbing. I think the most disturbing part is the socio-economic situation, so we were anticipating that this would be difficult for a lot of our viewers. Yet, when I come in here, people are sitting and looking at the pictures, not running away and covering their eyes.

The pictures are sometimes in your face, they make us confront issues concerning certain social realities about a community that often remains invisible or is marginalized, but in some cases I think they’re quite beautiful and poetic. If you were to think of a photographer making tableaux you’d think of Jeff Wall or Andreas Gursky, and this is the language Boris has immersed himself in. He lives in Germany now, and he’s become very familiar with those ideas and the scale those artists use. This picture with a man in the pose of the Pietà is part of the grouping of photographs he calls “The Requiem” which has a narrative that unfolds in a certain place and time. These are very self-consciously staged, and he thinks about iconic painting, Russian icons and the history of art, which I think is very evident. Others are moments that are much less posed and much more spontaneous. He made this body of work over a year, and what you start to see is not just a photographer who has come upon these people snapped and gone, but actually an engagement with a community.

Boris Mikhailov, “The Requiem” a group of photographs from the series Case History, (1997-98)

To me, the viewer becomes complicit in the act of looking as well as the act of photographing. These people are literally pulling their shirts up, their pants down, confronting the viewer. They’re unforgettable because not only are you forced to acknowledge them as a community of people, but also the fact that you’ve been here looking, viewing, as a voyeur or as someone not just passing with a glance; you were really looking. There are quite a few pictures in the series where Boris is in them, and I think it’s a signal to the viewer that he’s acting as a stand-in; reminding us that he’s looking, you’re looking, we’re all looking at it.

Boris Mikhailov, “Untitled” from the series Case History, (1997-98)

TW: Do you think the fact that he’s part of this community offsets the criticism he’s received for staging some of these images? The situation reminds me of controversies surrounding Robert Bergman and Dorothea Lange.

ER: Boris talks about the reason this series is called “Case History,” and refers to the history of Ukraine’s poverty and suffering not being photographed through the World Wars and the Soviet era. There were no photographs made that weren’t propaganda during this time, not even of the famine in the 1930s. After living abroad in Germany, Boris came back to a post-Soviet era Ukraine where everything was supposed to be shiny and new because of the new capitalism, but in fact he found a new class of homeless people that hadn’t existed before. He talks about the fact that he felt a need to document, to record, in the same way that Dorothea Lange and other FSA photographers were hired by the government to record the conditions of their time. He sees this as a case study for all of the Ukrainian history that wasn’t photographed.

Yet, as we all know, the cardinal rule of documentary photography is to never pay your subjects. I’ve talked to him about this because he’s gotten criticism for it every time the work’s been shown, and he described how felt he couldn’t not pay them. Dorothea Lange influenced her subjects in her pictures just as much as any other photographer through cropping and editing. Boris felt by paying his subjects he was participating in the modern-day economy, and that it was the most straightforward thing to do in this contemporary situation. I think he made these choices knowing that he was breaking the cardinal rule of social documentary.

Boris Mikhailov, “Untitled” from the series Case History, (1997-98)

TW: Do you think the nudity acts as an allegory for the need for photography to not be so fake today?

ER: Boris has communicated his ideas to me in more concrete terms, but I think you could say that about the work. The nudity makes me think of the physical aspects of the photographs because they’re right there for scrutiny in every way possible. They are what they are. They’re not even really perfect prints, and it doesn’t matter to him that they’re not. The body, the photograph, the thing itself, the art is right up close.

It’s important to show the variety of pictures from the series, including some that resemble the classic nude. In one there’s a background that has a pretense of being decorative, she’s very young and full of hope in a way that many of these pictures are not. There are a lot of pictures in the series that have moments of poetry and beauty. One shows a couple in an embrace and nice weather, and there’s a tenderness between them that, for me, helps the more forceful pictures. If you think of classic nude photography you might think of Edward Steichen or even somebody like Robert Mapplethorpe, which were both about beauty, and for me, that’s the photography history and art history in general he’s referring to here.

Boris Mikhailov, “Untitled” from the series Case History, (1997-98)

Boris Mikhailov, “Untitled” from the series Case History, (1997-98)

TW: How did you two approach curation? 

ER: It was a collaboration. I made an initial selection of about twice as many as are hanging here, and then, when I went to go see Boris in Berlin, he had some more ideas. He prints them in two sizes, life-sized and one quite small. He usually prints the full figures in the larger size because he likes a one-to-one scale between the viewer and the picture. The small ones are slightly different kinds of photographs, more landscapes and less full figures. When he came for installation, we made a few changes like removing the middle wall, which we’ve never done before, and including negative spaces in between the works. I really wanted them in this size because I think the scale has an impact on their reception, and participates in contemporary photography alongside, for example, Jeff Wall, who makes pictures that have social import to them in a very different way.

TW: Critics have suggested he’s blind to what’s happening, but I think he knows exactly what he’s doing. In a way, I like it when an artist doesn’t say anything.

ER: He’s an old-school guy who’s been around for a long time, so I don’t think he’s really interested in kowtowing to some kind of critical audience. He made his work when there was no possibility of showing or selling it, and his idea of being an artist is much different from what it is to be an artist today. He didn’t start out by assisting another artist or something, so his answers to questions about his work are inevitably different than others. It was a pleasure to work with Boris because he’s not just from a different generation; he’s almost from a different era.

Boris Mikhailov, “Untitled” from the series Case History, (1997-98)

TW: This series has an objective honesty most work dealing with homeless people doesn’t. Maybe this is a sign that we need to return to modern techniques and analog if we want to make truthful photographs.

ER: I think this show is poignant because of its socio-political message, but also because of the moment we’re in now with photography. These are film and traditional C-Prints, they’re not digital C-Prints. You get close, you see the grain. I think that’s important. I see this moment as a bridge between analog and digital, and all of what that means. Depiction, for me, is a very analog idea, so in that sense, these pictures are of our moment in that they reach back to the history of analog photography, which is changing rapidly. Not that there isn’t depiction now, but I think it’s a very different idea; especially figurative depiction.

The slippage between the social-documentary mode and something more staged and fictional shows that there is no such thing as photographic truth. Think of Dorothea Lange and her classic migrant mother picture — but the frames she took leading up to it show a completely different story and even a completely different looking woman. To me, this series speaks to such an aspect of the medium; that veracity, the idea of truth in photography, is something we’re always chasing, and it never has a fixed identity.

Boris Mikhailov’s Case History was the Museum of Modern Art (11 W 53rd Street, midtown Manhattan) from May 26 to September 5, 2011.