– Autumn/Winter 2005

The Ethics of a View: Notes on Boris Mikhailov

Viktor Misiano

Tags: Ilya Kabakov

The agonistic spirit reminiscent of Ancient Greece pervaded Russia under Brezhnev. Friendly drinking sessions, walks, camping holidays and unofficial seminars were exhilarating. People went rock-climbing, travelled in search of Shangri-La, visited art exhibitions held in private flats, and attended underground rock concerts, lectures by the semiotician Yuri Lotman and exhibitions of American graphics. All kinds of 'confessions' existed side by side in society: those who supported the restoration of the monarchy, Jew-bashers, Zionists, Russian orthodox believers, followers of the occult and Oriental religions, the postmodernists, hippies, old believers, Trotskyites, liberal Westernisers, moderate Slavophiles, Castaneda's followers, Gnostics, Stalinists and out-and-out Epicureans.1

These are the words of a contemporary 'eyewitness' describing 'developed socialism'. One could add another item to this list of spontaneously formed groups - the nationwide movement of amateur photographers. It is within this context that Boris Mikhailov's creative identity was forged.

The intensity of this sub-cultural milieu offers some insight as to why Mikhailov's work, right from the beginning, was free of any signs of classical professional reportage. Mikhailov makes no attempt to compose or frame the picture according to the rules, or to recreate situations that would embody the idea of photography as 'fly-on the-wall' representation. Yet this was precisely the way that photography in the Soviet Schools of Journalism (the only professional places to study photography) was taught at a time when Cartier-Bresson was worshipped. Mikhailov's basic premise remains that of a dilettante delighted by the sheer capacity of a photograph's ability to capture a fragment of reality - any fragment of any reality.

Mikhailov's own particular technique stems from the idea of preserving the intrinsic link to the spontaneity of an ordinary visual experience. He

  1. Lev Lurie, 'Communism and the Canary', in Ekaterina Degot and Viktor Misiano (eds.), Moscow-Berlin, Berlin-Moscow, 1950-2000, vol.1 (Art), Moscow:

  2. Trilistnik, 2004, p.74

  3. Boris Mikhailov, Unfinished Dissertation, Zürich, Berlin & New York: Scalo, 1998, p.3

  4. See L. Lurie, op. cit., p.74

  5. See Michel Maffesoli, Les Temps des tribus. Le déclin de l'individualisme dans les sociétés de masse, Paris: Méridiens-Klincksieck, 1988

  6. See Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, New York: Garden City, 1959

  7. 'The End of a Lovely Era' is the title of a poem Joseph Brodsky wrote in 1977. See Viktor Misiano, 'From an Existential Individualist to Solidarity', in René Block, Angelika Nollert and WHW (eds.), Collective Creativity, Kassel: Kunsthalle Fridericianum, 2005, p.176-84

  8. Dmitri Vilenski in conversation with Boris Mikhailov, 'The Ethics of a View', Khudozhestvenny Zhurnal, no.57, 2005, p.29