Thursday, April 26, 2007

Boris Mikhailov's Crimean Snobbism and Suzi Et Cetera

Boris Mikhailov has been presenting us with a different view of Soviet and Russian life that spans 40 years. Originally employed as an engineer he started taking pictures as a hobby in 1965. After he took a few nudes of his wife and made the mistake of developing them at work, he was fired and took up photography full time. He continued to make imagery that would be problematic to the "official" image exported from the Soviet Union.

He has published many books on subjects which encompass both the comedic and tragic aspects of life. And lately, books are being published on the heels of one another as if a dam has burst. Just in the past 5 months there are three new titles, Yesterday’s Sandwich (Phaidon 2006) Crimean Snobbism (Rathole 2006) and Suzi Et Cetera (Walther Konig 2007).

Suzi Et Cetera is 99 images in a paperback edition published by Walther Konig. The photographs in this odd little book were made in Mikhailov’s home town of Charkow, Ukraine in the early eighties. All described with a patina of color shifting and dusty, scratchy film.

This small book reads like a perverse fever dream of a photo album. Mikhailov gives us a glimpse of a system breaking down into a surrealist state and along the way it is unleashing a tide of sexual gluttony. He gives us photographs of nudes that look as if they fell from someone’s collection of amateur porn and they relay a mixture of excitement and shame. Soviet traditions, along with statuary of Lenin and young "pioneers,” are no longer capable of exciting pride in the young and are largely ignored except by the photographer and the elderly. The landscape and evidence of the “official” party line is slowly dissolving into history.

Added to all of this is the familiar wink and nod of Mikhailov’s artistic self consciousness.

Book Available Here

Crimean Snobbism is a little more elegant than Suzi Et Cetera. Published by Rathole in Japan, this small hardcover book is full of sepia toned images of Mikhailov and friends at the Crimean beach in the summer of 1982. It is nicely designed (complete with a dustjacket of textured paper) and doesn’t feel disposable like Suzi Et Cetera.

This work has a similar feel to the Salt Lake work published by Steidl in 2002. Mikhailov presents us with what seems to be an afternoon at the beach. He and his friends lounge in the sun and relax and then the afternoon digresses into self conscious “art making.” They mock their surroundings by striking poses next to shrubbery and mock their relationships by acting as if they fell from movie screens. The photography has the casualness that we associate with his past work. Because of that casualness (and the sepia tone), we have the sense of this serving as memory, literally in the head, rather than strictly as photographs.

I enjoy this book but I may be at a loss as to explain why I like it so much. Perhaps it is the light tone and the sense of the fun that is being had. The subtext is that they are separate from their surroundings and the people who use that same beach for their relaxation. They are being snobs in their play making. They are also making fun of themselves. They are free and unafraid of looking ridiculous.
Perhaps that was something necessary for Soviets in 1982.