Photographer Borys Mykhailov talks about the ability to weed out beauty, the emptiness of PR and art lovers
It has always been very difficult to determine who will gain the status of number one among artists. When such an artist is determined, it surprisingly difficult for him/her to consistently justify this status. Kharkiv-based Borys Mykhailov is the most famous photographer in Ukraine, and in his world, he is an expert in social art photography. However, he goes from strength to strength and continues to amaze viewers with his extravagant photographs in spite of being 75 years old. His work can be seen in most leading museums of New York, London, Moscow, Tokyo, Berlin, etc. His photographs have been exhibited in the most prestigious galleries of the world, such as the Saatchi Gallery (London), the Institute of Contemporary Art (Boston), Pace/ MacGill Gallery (New York) and so on. “Bob” Mykhailov is the only Ukrainian winner of the international Hasselblad Award – the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in photography. Like no one else, in his works, he is able to tear down the covers of narrow-minded beauty and decency, showing life in all of its unsavoury lights. The Ukrainian Week spoke to the master of photography during the opening of his personal exhibition, “UNRESPECTABLE” at the Yermilov Centre gallery in Kharkiv.
The success of a photographer is not the result of talent or diligence. First and foremost, it is the ability to understand the importance of the moment or event, which is happening in front of you, and selecting the most important of what is already important. Mechanical or purely technological moments are also not very determinant. Even a monkey can be taught to do something as simple cumulative actions, but it is incapable of giving birth to the idea of their vision, however many times it repeats these actions and however much it works. A photographer must have a firm position and constantly make choices – that’s the key. Even a choice from among the photos you have taken yourself.
When I do something, I turn to my inner critic-consumer. He/she lives inside each artist, and it is worth taking note of whether he/she gives a heads up to something or not – the interest of onlookers is reminiscent of moving platforms. No one knows whether they will come together at the right time and in the right place.
There are photographers-artisans, and there are artists, who make use of photographs. Artisans feel great: they photograph weddings, make passport photos, in other words, they execute their professional functions. For the artist, on the other hand, the main thing is to intertwine photographs with their own soul and vision. I belong to this second category.
It’s not worth separating photographs into documentary and artistic categories. Often, a purely informational image of reality on a photograph is the reverse side of art, so is a part of it. Each element is very important. For example, you consciously remove the actual substance from the photograph and instead, start working with what remains.
Now, in a supposedly free society, taking photos is much more difficult than during the totalitarian Soviet era. It was clear who the enemy was then – the reason why you did everything, sometimes in defiance and ultimately, you continued to take photographs. Today, you can’t tell who your opponent is or how to compete against him/her. In addition, the current variety of colour significantly complicates an artist’s work, since it’s difficult to choose. It’s very easy to make a choice when such choice is restricted. But total freedom is not a very simple element in the puzzle of creating a piece of artwork. Its surplus is also a problem, because it seems that nobody stops you from doing whatever you want to do. The question arises: then why do it?
I weed out beauty in my works. For me, it’s important for people to simply see something else, in its common understanding, aesthetics shield it, so for me, it is superfluous.
When I do something, I don’t think about becoming part of the general trend. I don’t even know what it is. This is simply an extension of my comprehension. Although, of course, I’m interested in the context: what are my colleagues photographing, on what canvas, where, to whom, in what does success lie. But I don’t understand what PR is and don’t use it, because it is an empty, specially devised soap bubble . There is no truth behind it. At the same time, for example, there is a lot of largely positive PR surrounding information on a photography school in Kharkiv. For the most part, this is simply a coincidence. Also, when I succeeded in gaining a level of success, I started telling everyone about this school, but critics and journalists began to dig and search for connections of some kind, brought up theories, and so on. In other words, a sort of PR campaign had begun. But in truth, there were people, who took care of business and there was faith in oneself. So not everything is for nothing here.
Some words are no longer relevant for artists. Overall, certain good words are used right now: truth, obligation, importance. However an artist is still responsible for himself/herself: if he or she has set himself or herself a certain task, he or she has to fulfil it. If he or she considers it necessary to explain something to people with his or her work, he/she must act accordingly, if not – then no. Thus a painting or photograph speaks for itself. But if it is necessary to comment on and explain it, this is also okay.
I find it funny when people say: “You do this for money”. Generally, to me, all conversations about artists earning money seem empty. For example, Rembrandt only talked about money and created all of his best works on commission. This is normal. After all, every person wants his or her work to be duly priced. When an artist is working in his or her chosen field, is he/she supposed to be nourished by the Holy Spirit? In principle, money is a measure of professionalism, the ability to give people what you have made. You have what you earned.
It is impossible to determine the specific point where art begins. But in general, it begins with an idea. This is why most average people do not understand what the heck it is. But art functions and develops in a multi-level cultural society and gradually gains a value, which is later extrapolated to the above-mentioned man in the street. On its path to value, art inevitably has to overcome certain obstacles – no one has ever succeeded in reaching this category right away.
Shocking the public is required when times are boring. For example, I am no longer interested in simple provocation – I’m drawn to a deepening, efforts to understand the other side of metaphysics, etc. However, time itself allows an artist to understand when and what is worth doing. The important thing is to ask and search. For example, at one time, our group in Kharkiv felt that it was necessary to shock the Soviet public. But if you were to repeat what we did then, it would now be viewed as vulgar kitsch.
Art will never die. The only thing that can change is the technology for its creation, but not the actual genres. Even its components, which now seem to be part of the past, emerge from time to time, like revived history. Even that which now seems unfashionable has not died: neither Greek tragedy, nor ballet, nor frescoes. Art is somehow reminiscent of religion – at least in the sense that it has its followers – museum employees. They are keeping visual knowledge of life safe for future generations. And as long as intelligent mankind exists, art will have its place.
The Ukrainian Week asks American think-tankers and diplomats three questions: 1. Is Ukraine seen as part of Russia’s sphere of influence in the US? 2. Why a part of the American establishment believes that Ukraine should be attributed to Russia’s orbit? 3. What can Ukraine do to counter this approach?