The High Dive, in Prospect Park, is a fine, little bar in Brooklyn. In the back, there are two pinball machines that glow the color of orange-red. Popcorn is free to grab. And Brooklyn Lagers are served $5 a can on most days. In short, it’s not a bar you’d go to if you’re expecting to talk all night about the Ukrainian provocateur Boris Mikhailov. Grotesque, dark, and brutally honest—Mikhailov’s work picks at a scab covering middle-class sensibility (above is one of his photos).
Two weeks ago, I invited Juan Madrid, co-founder of the Free Lunch Cartel and a VICE contributor, for drinks at the High Dive. I wanted to finish a talk we were having over email about Mikhailov. A photography savant, Madrid combines a single-minded focus on all things photo with an ego so large that it doesn’t exist. I thought he’d be the perfect guide to introduce Boris Mikhailov’s work to the blog.
That night at the High Dive, I began to realize that I led Madrid to a sad, sad joke. A couple of Brooklyn Lagers had failed to tune out a neon-lit gloom. Madrid and I exited, in hopes of another bar. There, he showed me two of his photo books and catalog of an exhibition he co-curated at the Center for Photography at Woodstock. We switched to Tecates and lime. At one point, Madrid looked at his reflection in a window and summoned the golden ratio. In some of his photos, he said, he had found its hand, his photographs laid out like the spirals in nautilus shells, unaware he captured its composition. We drank, talked photography, and drank again.
This interview is from the questions and answers Juan and I sent back and forth over email.
I want to begin this interview about Boris Mikhailov, you, and your thoughts on Boris Mikhailov by starting with your photographs of roadkill. These photographs are featured on your Instagram, hashtagged as #deadthingjousting. What do you think about starting here? Do you see any connection between them and Mikhailov’s work?
Mikhailov manages to be blunt and poetic in a very visceral way. In many ways, #deadthingjousting is a similar attempt at bluntness, though I think it is a much more literal take than any of Mikhailov’s photographs. What I do think they share is a certain level of clarity – Mikhailov shows us a reality that we can’t look away from, no matter how much we want. His images are imprinted in our minds, left to stew and, hopefully, haunt us. I hope to do the same things with the roadkill photos – make something that a viewer has to look at, but not for the grotesqueness of it (at least after the initial view). It’s something people would rather look away from in person – hopefully the photograph forces the viewer to react and reconsider their own actual interactions in similar situations.
What do you think he sees in the grotesque? What compelled you to stop and photograph a dead thing?
I think Mikhailov sees the grotesque as an impression of the world. Taken in that way, there’s a sense of disgust with what he sees but not directed at who he sees. I’m not sure if he sees beauty in the grotesque (he finds a certain aesthetic quality through it) but the grotesque qualities he does find have moved him to make a photograph.
One reason I photograph dead things is the shock of it. Generally, people do not like seeing dead animals (especially a cat or dog in the Western world) and I get some satisfaction out of forcing people out of their comfort zone. On a more personal level, seeing death is something that always catches my attention. Photographing roadkill makes me more aware of everything living and dying around me, and I like being in that headspace. It became extremely apparent when I started biking regularly, and would see at least a handful of corpses on any one ride. One image that is still burned in my mind is commuting to work and seeing two or three grown raccoons in the road, about 50 or 100 feet from each other. In a way, the photographs act as a conduit for hatred towards what humans do to the world around them, often unconscientiously.
Which would you consider more truthful, a photograph of a pretty sunset or one like Mikhailov’s and yours? Would you agree that a pretty picture is only a “mindless imitation of visible reality,” as Mikhailov said?
I don’t know that I’d consider either to be more or less truthful than the other – truth is a deeply personal thing. I feel comfortable saying the sunset photo is surely the more simplistic of the two and that it is correct to say it is a “mindless imitation of visible reality.” A pretty picture in and of itself is almost always purely superficial – the only truly interesting thing about it in this day and age is how it can function as language, but even that isn’t particularly deep.
When I emailed you last week about him, you returned my email with two photographs from Case History. You wrote that this photo (above) is one of your favorites. Could you explain why it’s one of your favorites? What do you like about it, exactly?
It’s like looking at a gateway to an underworld opening up – the use of flash, the ground seeming to collapse under the man, the man’s red eyes and dirty face. Mikhailov created a mythology with these photos, and this one has always felt like the purest distillation of that aspect. On a purely aesthetic level, it resonates with me. But it also starts to ring true on a more internal level for me as well – I’m attracted to the sheer hopelessness of the photo; the mental and emotional space the photo creates feels like a void, like being suspended in pure nothingness while still being tied to the physical world around you.
Knowing that Mikhailov paid the homeless men and women in these photos to pose for him, it’s easy to contrast Boris’s approach to that of a photojournalist. Which approach is more real to you? What’s real in a series of photographs that are staged and performed?
In contemporary practice, I find the (Western) photojournalistic approach to be more problematic (not sure the word “real” is particularly helpful in this type of conversation). Photojournalism has a storied history, and has tended to “serve a purpose.” The idea of a higher calling is very off putting to me and attempts to give photographs a certain power that I don’t think they inherently have. It’s demanding of the medium and is artificially literal in the worst way possible. The idea of an ethical code is interesting in theory, but I find it to be extremely restrictive and outdated in today’s world, where visual language and culture has expanded explosively since the emergence of the internet, for better and worse.
What’s real in a successful series of staged and performed photos is the interaction between the subject and the photographer. If the photographer is skilled, they’re able to capture something that goes beyond the actual performance and connects more universally. Mikhailov in particular creates an intimacy that is troubling for people because we’re conditioned to not see the homeless, the mentally ill, addicts, and other troubled individuals as human. We’re thrust into their lives uncomfortably, made more so because we know they’re being objectified – but at least the photographs are honest in their objectification, which is more than can be said for most photographers work.
Would you consider Case History anti-capitalist? Is the paying the men and women exploitative? If so, is the work no longer anti-capitalist? What do you think?
I think the content of the work itself is anti-capitalist but the acts in making the work are capitalistic. Not that that demeans, devalues, or invalidates the work at all – if anything, the paradox implied by that brings up some interesting points. Did Mikhailov need to pay the people at all or would they have agreed to be photographed without compensation? Is he being more humane (or even ethical) than a photojournalist by providing some sort of financial support to these people? And what does that say about photojournalism and its own operation within capitalism? Even more broadly, is photography a capitalistic medium or is it just entrapped in capitalism?
Spending this afternoon with Boris makes me think about how much I dislike the words innocent and neutral. The latter should be used only when describing ph levels. There’s nothing neutral about photography. A bias, whether conscious or not, always lets itself in. What do you think? Have you ever lied in one of your photographs? Have you ever lied in the service of truth?
I’ve definitely lied at the very least on a very surface level, but that’s the beauty of photography. Every photograph is a lie. Truth itself may also be a lie. I prefer thinking in terms of honesty – how honest are photographers with themselves and with the medium? I recently thought about how to describe photography and thought that non-fictitious fiction is an apt description. Granted, I don’t think many photographers actually reach that ideal, often getting tied up in being overly conceptual or intellectual and using photographs rather than letting photographs be. Photography is not a neutral artistic medium and shouldn’t be.