in Photography

Russia In Color 100 Years Ago

Sergey Mikhaylovich Prokudin-Gorsky was a Russian chemist and photographer. He is best known for his pioneering work in color photography of early 20th-century Russia.

Prokudin-Gorsky’s own research yielded patents for producing color film slides and for projecting color motion pictures. His process used a camera that took a series of three monochrome pictures in sequence, each through a different-colored filter. By projecting all three monochrome pictures using correctly colored light, it was possible to reconstruct the original color scene. Any stray movement within the camera’s field of view showed up in the prints as multiple “ghosted” images, since the red, green and blue images were taken of the subject at slightly different times.

The exposure time of the frames is likely to have varied, even if the developed negatives were later on similar glass plates. In a letter to Leo Tolstoy requesting a photo session, Prokudin-Gorsky described each photo as taking one to three seconds, but, when recollecting his time with Tolstoy, he described a six-second exposure on a sunny day.[7][11] Blaise Agüera y Arcas estimated the exposure of a 1909 photo taken in broad daylight to have had combined exposures of over a minute, using the movement of the moon as comparison.

Though color prints of the photos were difficult to make at the time and slide show lectures consumed much of the time he used to demonstrate his work, his studio worked in publishing prints of the photos in journals, books, postcards and large photogravures.[4] Many of the original prints from his publishing studio have survived to this day.

Around 1905, Prokudin-Gorsky envisioned and formulated a plan to use the emerging technological advances that had been made in color photography to document the Russian Empire systematically. Through such an ambitious project, his ultimate goal was to educate the schoolchildren of Russia with his “optical color projections” of the vast and diverse history, culture, and modernization of the empire.[14]

Outfitted with a specially equipped railroad-car darkroom provided by Tsar Nicholas II and in possession of two permits that granted him access to restricted areas and cooperation from the empire’s bureaucracy, Prokudin-Gorsky documented the Russian Empire around 1909 through 1915. He conducted many illustrated lectures of his work. His photographs offer a vivid portrait of a lost world—the Russian Empire on the eve of World War I and the coming Russian Revolution. His subjects ranged from the medieval churches and monasteries of old Russia, to the railroads and factories of an emerging industrial power, to the daily life and work of Russia’s diverse population.

It has been estimated from Prokudin-Gorsky’s personal inventory that before leaving Russia, he had about 3500 negatives.Upon leaving the country and exporting all his photographic material, about half of the photos were confiscated by Russian authorities for containing material that was strategically sensitive for war-time Russia.According to Prokudin-Gorsky’s notes, the photos left behind were not of interest to the general public. Some of Prokudin-Gorsky’s negatives were given away, and some he hid on his departure.Outside the Library of Congress collection, none has yet been found.

By Prokudin-Gorsky’s death, the tsar and his family had long since been executed during the Russian Revolution, and Communist rule had been established over what was once the Russian Empire. The surviving boxes of photo albums and fragile glass plates the negatives were recorded on were finally stored in the basement of a Parisian apartment building, and the family was worried about them getting damaged. The United States Library of Congress purchased the material from Prokudin-Gorsky’s heirs in 1948 for $3500–$5000 on the initiative of a researcher inquiring into their whereabouts.The library counted 1902 negatives and 710 album prints without corresponding negatives in the collection.

Due to the difficulty in reproducing prints of sufficient quality from the negatives, only some hundred were used for exhibits, books and scholarly articles after the Library of Congress acquired them.The best-known is perhaps the 1980 coffee table book Photographs for the Tsar: The Pioneering Color Photography of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii Commissioned by Tsar Nicholas II, where the photos were combined from black-and-white prints of the negatives. It was only with the advent of digital image processing that multiple images could be satisfactorily combined into one. The Library of Congress undertook a project in 2000 to make digital scans of all the photographic material received from Prokudin-Gorsky’s heirs and contracted with the photographer Walter Frankhauser to combine the monochrome negatives into color images.He created 122 color renderings using a method he called digichromatography and commented that each image took him around six to seven hours to align, clean and color-correct. In 2001, the Library of Congress produced an exhibition from these, The Empire That Was Russia: The Prokudin-Gorskii Photographic Record Recreated. The photographs have since been the subject of many other exhibitions in the area where Prokudin-Gorsky took his photos.

In 2004, the Library of Congress contracted with computer scientist Blaise Agüera y Arcas to produce an automated color composite of each of the 1902 negatives from the high-resolution digital images of the glass-plate negatives. He applied algorithms to compensate for the differences between the exposures and prepared color composites of all the negatives in the collection.As the library offers the high-resolution images of the negatives freely on the Internet, many others have since created their own color representations of the photos,and they have become a favourite testbed for computer scientists.A century after Prokudin-Gorsky explained his ambitions to the tsar, people all around the world are finally able to view his work, fulfilling his goal of showing everyone the glory of the Russian Empire.

1. An Armenian woman in national costume poses for Prokudin-Gorskii on a hillside near Artvin (in present day Turkey), circa 1910

2. Self-portrait on the Karolitskhali River, ca. 1910. Prokudin-Gorskii in suit and hat, seated on rock beside the Karolitskhali River, in the Caucasus Mountains near the seaport of Batumi on the eastern coast of the Black Sea.

3. Molding of an artistic casting (Kasli Iron Works), 1910. From the album “Views in the Ural Mountains, survey of industrial area, Russian Empire”.

4. A woman is seated in a calm spot on the Sim River, part of the Volga watershed in 1910.

5. A chapel sits on the site where the city of Belozersk was founded in ancient times, photographed in 1909

6. View of Tiflis (Tblisi), Georgia from the grounds of Saint David Church, ca. 1910.

7. Isfandiyar Jurji Bahadur, Khan of the Russian protectorate of Khorezm (Khiva, now a part of modern Uzbekistan), full-length portrait, seated outdoors, ca. 1910

8. A closer detail view of Isfandiyar, Khan of the Russian protectorate of Khorezm. This photo would have been taken near the start of his reign in 1910, when he was 39 years old. He ruled Khorezm until his death in 1918

9. On the Sim River, a shepherd boy. Photo taken in 1910, from the album “Views in the Ural Mountains, survey of industrial area, Russian Empire

10. Alternators made in Budapest, Hungary, in the power generating hall of a hydroelectric station in Iolotan (Eloten), Turkmenistan, on the Murghab River, ca. 1910

11. A Georgian woman poses for a photograph, ca. 1910

12. A group of women in Dagestan, ca. 1910

13. General view of Artvin (now in Turkey) from the small town of Svet, ca. 1910

14. Pinkhus Karlinskii, eighty-four years old with sixty-six years of service. Supervisor of Chernigov floodgate, part of the Mariinskii Canal system. Photo taken in 1909

15. General view of the Nikolaevskii Cathedral from southwest in Mozhaisk in 1911

16. A group of Jewish children with a teacher in Samarkand, (in modern Uzbekistan), ca. 1910

17. A switch operator poses on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, near the town of Ust Katav on the Yuryuzan River in 1910

18. Cornflowers in a field of rye, 1909. From the album “Views along the Mariinskii Canal and river system, Russian Empire

19. Laying concrete for the dam’s sluice, 1912. Workers and supervisors pose for a photograph amid preparations for pouring cement for sluice dam foundation across the Oka River near Beloomut.

20. Sart woman in purdah in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, ca. 1910. Until the Russian revolution of 1917, “Sart” was the name for Uzbeks living in Kazakhstan

21. General view of the wharf at Mezhevaya Utka, 1912

22. Peasants harvesting hay in 1909. From the album “Views along the Mariinskii Canal and river system, Russian Empire

23. Prokudin-Gorskii rides along on a handcar outside Petrozavodsk on the Murmansk railway along Lake Onega near Petrozavodsk in 1910

24. A water-carrier in Samarkand (present-day Uzbekistan), ca. 1910

25. A dog rests on the shore of Lake Lindozero in 1910. From the album “Views along the Murmansk Railway, Russian Empire”

26. Factory in Kyn, Russia, belonging to Count S.A. Stroganov, 1912

27. Russian children sit on the side of a hill near a church and bell tower near White Lake, in Russia, 1909

28. Emir Seyyid Mir Mohammed Alim Khan, the Emir of Bukhara, seated holding a sword in Bukhara, (present-day Uzbekistan), ca. 1910

29. A boy leans on a wooden gatepost in 1910. From the album “Views in the Ural Mountains, survey of industrial area, Russian Empire”

30. A metal truss bridge on stone piers, part of the Trans-Siberian Railway, crossing the Kama River near Perm, Ural Mountains Region, ca. 1910

31. Nomadic Kirghiz on the Golodnaia Steppe in present-day Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, ca. 1910

32. A man and woman pose in Dagestan, ca. 1910

33. A general view of Sukhumi, Abkhazia and its bay, seen sometime around 1910 from Cherniavskii Mountain

34. A boy sits in the court of Tillia-Kari mosque in Samarkand, present-day Uzbekistan, ca. 1910

Alexandru

Alexandru is the co-owner of TopDesignMag. “If it looks easy, it's hard. If it looks hard, it's impossible. If it looks impossible, it's due tomorrow. At 8 A.M.”