In Salt Lake, Boris Mikhailov’s 1986 photographs provide a breathtaking thowback to life in the USSR.
The social and political context which engendered a response to Mikhailov’s work quite the opposite to that in the West, is fundamental to understanding the 1986 series Salt Lake.
It is also of course significant in any understanding of the artist’s history. The Salt Lake photographs are one of his bodies of work which were created privately — and which document a world removed from any ideal.
“Salt Lake” is very Russian, to the extent that it was characteristic to show personal worlds distinct from power structures and to portray those people who, in defiance of all adversity, lived their lives to the full.
Mikhailov’s work encompasses both the tragic and the comedic aspects of life in a similar vein to the literary work of Fyodor Mikhail Dostoyevsky. He is in the tradition of generations of Russian artists who have explored the insoluble connections between artistic creation and the inner man.
With this sequence of photographs Boris Mikhailov documents summer days and bathing pleasures at a lake near Slavjansk in the Ukraine.
It is the town where his father lives and the environment bears the scars of the local factories which produce soda water.
The industrial process accounts for the high salt content of this inland water and it is this factor which attracts the old and aged, hoping for some alleviation or even cure of medical conditions.
The water is said to be good for the skin and this has established the dirty lakeside promenade, where now and then freight trains are being shunted, as a health resort.
This industrial context is not consistent with the idea of a summer holiday. But in the same way that concerns about pollution are disregarded, any notion of a bathing beach is ignored.
There is a stretch of water, the heat of summer, and the possibility to escape from the sun by bathing in the salt lake, all topped by the illusion that this is good for body and soul.
Today, Salt Lake can be seen from a different perspective: the Soviet Union is no more and the criteria which produced this kind of photography no longer apply. But the harmonious life which had been possible outside the state ideal is also no longer possible.
These photographs as documents of an epoch. They are also born out of Mikhailov’s vision and he reminds us that, as Dostoyevsky claimed, “beauty alone saves the world” — even if that beauty only survives in our memories.
Adapted from a text by Friedrich Meschede