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​Boris Mikhailov's "Crimean Snobbism" by Simon Baker

On Tuesday, October 25, Simon Baker's presentation on Boris Mikhailov's photograph entitled "Crimean Snobbism" has been broadcasted on Radio Nova.

"This is a small, sepia-toned photograph, whose image disappears at the edges, fading out into a warm uneven border. In the foreground, to the right is a beautiful young woman in a summer dress and white straw hat, looking off to the left of the picture. She is almost, but not quite, in profile, a single point of light catching her visible left eye. She leans between two people we barely see from behind. They’re at a counter, although for what, it is not clear. Behind her, high on the wall are portraits of Marx and Engels, their frames almost touching what looks like a low ceiling. It is impossible to know, but impossible not to imagine what this beautiful woman is thinking, for whom she is waiting, where she is, and why. The photographer is close to her, very close, close enough perhaps even to touch her, and yet her distracted, distant gaze keeps her far away: far from him and further from us.

This is the first photograph in a series from the early 1980s by the Ukrainian photographer Boris Mikhailov. The series is called Crimean Snobbism and consists of Boris, his wife Vita, and their friends pretending to be bourgeois soviet citizens on holiday in the Crimea: something they could not afford to do, and yet seem to have done, somehow, in order to make this work. The first picture is Vita, of course, and it introduces a very special, very beautiful, and truly poetic photographic response to life, and making art, in a totalitarian system. When I think of this work, I am reminded of lines by the American writer Philip K Dick: ‘How does one fashion a book of resistance’ he wrote, in 1974, ‘a book of truth in an empire of falsehood, or a book of rectitude in an empire of vicious lies. How does one do this right in front of the enemy?’

Boris and Vita Mikhailov have spent their life together confounding their enemies, speaking truth to power and doing so with humility, humour and love. But when I think of this picture, the first in Crimean Snobbism, of Vita’s transcendent beauty in 1982, I also think of them coming to London and installing the work at Tate Modern in 2016, still so close together, and still fashioning their own unique form of resistance, one photograph at a time."

Dr Simon Baker is Curator of Photography and International Art, Tate. Prior to becoming Tate's first curator of photography, he was Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Nottingham, where he taught history of photography, surrealism and contemporary art. He has published widely on these subjects, and curated the following exhibitions: Undercover Surrealism: Georges Bataille and Documents (Hayward, London, 2006); Close-up: proximity and defamiliarisation in art, film and photography, (Fruitmarket, Edinburgh, 2008). More recently he curated Exposed (2010) ; Taryn Simon: A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I- XVIII (2011) ; and William Klein + Daido Moriyama (2012) at Tate Modern, and Another London (2012) at Tate Britain.

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Boris Mikhailov, From Crimean Snobbism 1982 © Boris Mikhailov
Boris Mikhailov, From Crimean Snobbism 1982 © Boris Mikhailov
Simon Baker
Simon Baker
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