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Boris Mikhailov: Dance, 1978

Updated: May 21

Every now and then I'm revisiting some of the photography books and other items on my shelves here. This time it’s . . .

Fron cover of Worktown People by the photographer Humphrey Spender

This is one of my favourite books. I find it so beautiful and simple that I’m tempted not to talk about it too much in case I destroy that simplicity.  Dance, 1978 is a series shot in Kharkov, Ukraine, during Soviet times and shows middle-aged and elderly people dancing in public. That’s all. If I stopped there we could just enjoy the book on that level: the characters, the clothes, the hairstyles, the gestures and movements, the displays of friendship, bravado and quiet humility, the simple fact of human beings interacting in a social space. It’s quite touching. 


But can we stop there? Probably not. This is Boris Mikhailov after all, one of the most important and controversial photographers from the Soviet and post-Soviet era. If you don’t know his work then go and take a look. From his ‘Red’ series the 60s and 70s, to his superimpositions and sandwiched negatives, his use of the diary format, the snapshot, family albums, the kitsch, the anti-heroic Soviet icon, hand-coloured images, textual confusion, naked bodies, self-parodying self-portraits and eroticism amongst homeless drug addicts. It’s a hell of a ride. 

I had the pleasure of meeting Boris Mikhailov some years ago at the Art Biennale in Venice. I took along my copy of Dance, 1978 which he signed for me, along with a dedication which I am unable to decipher but which I secretly hope says something rude or offensive. We only had a quick chat in a mixture of English and German and it would have been nice to talk longer. He’s an interesting guy for sure. 

If you look on-line you can find this book for about €20 which is a real bargain. Perhaps because this is not an artist monograph as such but the publication of a series that won him the Hasselblad Award in 2000. The market for photography books is a strange one. Whatever, I find Dance, 1978 to be so moving and so well paced it’s a pleasure to look through. Some of the sequences are exquisite. There is a dream-like quality, a momentary escape from the reality of Soviet life, an excuse to dress up on a Sunday morning and parade in the park. The ladies leave their handbags in a pile near some mirrors and no-one seems to worry about them being stolen. Some people sit on benches around the edge of the park to watch the dancers, perhaps waiting to be asked for a dance themselves. I love how they lay old newspapers on the bench before sitting down.

Behind all this is a social comment. The dancers are making a show and it is this exhibition of the personal, the body both masked and unmasked, which has fascinated Mikhailov throughout his career. During the most restrictive years of communist rule he photographed men and women taking part in national celebrations with all their faults and imperfections on display. It was an act of subversion, mocking the heroic Soviet ideal presented by the State, replacing illusion with reality.  Mikhailov used his role as a photographer to comment, often ironically, on the absurdity of the authoritarian system in which he lived.  But he had to do so carefully. Even photographing the dancers in this book would have risked unwanted attention from the authorities.

At the end of the day what I enjoy most is the humanity in this book. It’s a recurring theme in the work of many of my favourite photographers.

There's a lot more to say about Boris Mikhailov and if ever I buy (or can afford) one of his more famous books I'll come back to talk about him again.

Boris Mikhailov, Dance, 1978. Published by Scalo/Göteborg. Hasselblad Center 2000


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