6 April 2019

The Century Old Color Photographs of Prokudin-Gorsky

In 1909 a remarkable project was initiated by Russian photographer Sergey Mikhaylovich Prokudin-Gorsky. His mission was to record – in full and vibrant color – the vast and diverse Russian Empire. Here, with his story, is a selection of his amazing century old full color pictures.

Just over one hundred years ago a Russian photographer, began a remarkable project. With the blessing – and funding – of the Tsar, Nicholas II, he embarked on an extraordinary journey to capture the essence of Russia in full color photographs. Many of these pictures look as if they could have been taken yesterday, with only the costumes worn by the people captured in their moment of time betraying the age of the work. The first shows two men crossing a small river.

The colors are quite remarkable – a technique which Prokudin-Gorsky developed himself. However, his travels through the Russian Empire were never a fait accompli. They were the culmination of a long and arduous struggle. Thanks to the tenacity of the photographer we now have a record of times a century ago, so clear and vivid that one feels it is almost possible to jump in to the picture (which would no doubt astonish the subject of the photographs a much as it would disobey the laws of physics as we now know them).

The past always comes alive with pictures, so perhaps it is appropriate to include at this point a picture of the man himself. This was taken somewhat later than his 1909 project, in 1915. The Great War had been raging for less than a year when this shot was taken. Looking like a thoughtful actor taking a break from shooting a period movie, the image shows a middle-aged man, lost in thought. He gives the appearance of a somewhat world weary fatigue and it is certainly true that this was not the easiest of eras in which to live. His world was undergoing rapid, bloody change which would culminate in revolution in his home country. What is going through his mind as this picture is taken can only be guessed at, but what a picture.

The audience with the Tsar was to herald a project which Prokudin-Gorsky came to regard as his life’s work and it is certainly a remarkable testament to the man and to the country of Russia. Above, the harvest of 1909 is collected. There is no evidence of the picture of any technology to aid in the bringing in of the harvest, at best the implements and carriages could be described as medieval. However, this way of life was coming to an end. Even after the October Revolution of 1917 which would mark the beginning of the age of Russian industrialization, Prokudin-Gorsky continued to create his record of this fast disappearing world.

Prokudin-Gorsky came from a long line of Russian nobles who mostly enjoyed careers in the Russian army. Prokudin-Gorsky had a more cerebral bent and he studied chemistry in Saint Petersburg at the Institute of Technology in the city. He also studied painting and music at the Imperial Academy of Arts. Chemistry and the Arts may not immediately spring to mind as a happy marriage of subjects to many, but Prokudin-Gorsky’s interest in both would come together eventually. In 1889, at the age of twenty six he travelled to Berlin to study Photochemistry at the Technical University of the German capitol. There he met and studied under Adolf Miethe who was experimenting with three color photography.

This started the long journey which would culminate in works such as the one above. Taken one hundred years ago, in 1909, it shows the Team of the Sheksna steamer. A combination of studied informality, this remarkable color shot shows the chain of command in all its glory. Were the youngest of the men pictured fifteen years old at the time he would now be the oldest man on the planet.

Marriage in 1890 produced two sons and a daughter. Prokudin-Gorsky’s wife was Anna Aleksandra Lavrova, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist who was a member of the Imperial Russian Technical Society (IRTS). Prokudin-Gorsky worked for his father in law at a metal works near St Petersburg, a position he held until the October Revolution and he joined the photographic section of the IRTS, Russia’s oldest photographic society.

Miethe’s methods of color photography needed to be further developed and with this in mind he established a studio in 1901. During the following eight year’s Prokudin-Gorsky’s reputation grew. However, even on a fairly good salary from the metal works the money to fund his envisioned great project was beyond his means. Without funding, works such as the 1909 sawyers on the river Svir would never be composed and taken. Enter one Leo Tolstoy.

The only color portrait known to exist of Leo Tolstoy (some maintain it is the first Russian color photographic portrait) was taken in 1908.

One can only imagine the joy of the photographer to be given such an opportunity to capture for posterity (and in color) the grand old man of Russian letters.

Taken two year’s before the author’s death in 1910 this picture beautifully captures the man behind masterpieces such as War and Peace and Anna Karenina. This image was widely reproduced on postcards and in various publications of the time.

This (without forgetting or neglecting his reputation based on his other work on monuments) eventually brought him to the attention of Tsar Nicholas II.

Tolstoy would be the inadvertent catalyst for the go ahead of the biggest project of Prokudin-Gorsky’s life.

Some children will simply not sit still and this 1909 photograph gives us a hint of Prokudin-Gorsky’s technique (more about that later). The Tsar was suitably impressed with the work of the photographer and gave his permission and funding for the long awaited project to begin. Over the next ten years Prokudin-Gorsky would create a collection of over ten thousand photographs (many, sadly, lost to us now). His goal was to educate Russian schoolchildren and to create a record of deserving of the sheer enormity and diversity of Russia and its then empire. How, however, did he achieve such astonishing results more than a century ago? The secret is in the science.

The process used involved a camera that would take a set of three photographs. These pictures would be monochrome but each picture would be taken using a filter of a different color. When all three monochrome pictures were projected (using light which had to be specifically colored) then the original color scene could be reconstructed. However, this took some time to take – hardly the point and click we are used to a century on – and so occasionally in Prokudin-Gorsky’s work you can see stray movements, such as the child in the bottom left of the previous picture.

The six young people seen taking a break from the harvest in 1909 would have had to sit still for quite a while. The green red and blue images were taken at times that were slightly different. Estimates vary of the times needed to get the complete picture. Prokudin-Gorsky himself recollected that the picture of Tolstoy took six seconds for each exposure. However it is also thought that pictures like the one above would require the subjects to sit stock still for a whole minute. It is for this reason that many of Prokudin-Gorsky’s pictures look deliberately posed. By their very nature they had to be, but what Prokudin-Gorsky tries to capture is a single moment.

Yet even for Sergei, some moments were simply impossible to capture without some blurring.

By 1915 Prokudin-Gorsky’s technique had improved. Here he managed to take a self portrait which looks completely informal and almost as if the picture has been taken in a split second. Even then, however, the water is still moving too quickly to be captured wholly. However, it does give the picture the feel of some modern high definition photography – just a hundred years before its time. The scene here is idyllic. Who would think, looking at this picture that the country was in continual political turmoil.

While he did not ignore the idyllic looking pastoral scenes with happy looking peasant it was within Prokudin-Gorsky’s remit to record the harsher aspects of early twentieth century. The not terribly happy expressions on the faces of these workers from the Bakalskiy Mine show the harshness of life in pre-revolutionary Russia. Tsar Nicholas II had given Prokudin-Gorsky a railroad car that had been adapted to contain a darkroom. He also had two permits that granted him access to areas that were generally restricted for the general population. It must be remembered that even before the revolution Russia was not a democracy and the red tape involved in the project must have been vast.

However, it does seem that Prokudin-Gorsky was fond of the ladies.  There are a number of very beautifully composed photographs of gentlewomen in his collection, which contrast starkly with those of the peasant classes.

One can only imagine the set up for this photograph but I would like to think that access was granted to Prokudin-Gorsky and his crew only after this shot of the local military dignitary had been taken. Such was Prokudin-Gorsky’s grant to cover restricted areas that when he finally left Russia many of his plates were confiscated as they contained images that the authorities deemed too sensitive to leave the country. And yes, that is Sergey on the right of the picture. He seemed to have an almost Hitchcockian tendency to interpolate himself in to his own work. He does certainly seem, here, to have the patient air of a man used to satisfying the curiosity of strangers.

Three generations of the same family, the Kalganovs, pose for the camera. How many times Prokudin-Gorsky had to say ‘now remain completely still until I tell you’ can only be guessed. Color prints of the photos were not easy to make at the time, but to help fund the work Prokudin-Gorsky had to commit a deal of his time to lecture tours where he showed slides of his pictures. His own studios produced many of his pictures in journals and they were reproduced (often in black and white) in many books of the time. Many of his shots were used to make postcards – hugely popular at the time and the Edwardian equivalent of a text message. A large number of his originals still survive to this day.

During his travels, Prokudin-Gorsky managed to record for the world the many faces of Russia. However, revolutions are painful businesses and the Prokudin-Gorsky family was no exception. Although he was awarded a new professorship under the communist regime this must have grated for a member of the aristocracy, even a minor one. In 1918, a year after the revolution, Prokudin-Gorsky left Russia for good. He married again in 1920 (his lab assistant!) but remained in close contact with his first family. He even set up a photographic studio with his three adult children from his first marriage. The studio was named Elka after his fourth child, the first with his new wife Maria Fedorovna née Schedrimo.

His work took in the official and semi-official. Here, the planners and builders of a new railway are taken at an outdoors meeting. This photo was taken in 1915. While revolution loomed in Russia, in the USA the House of Representatives rejected a proposal to give women the vote. In January of the same year the Germans used poison gas against the Russians on the battlefield for the first time and Babe Ruth hit his first career home run.

As well as the great and the good, Prokudin-Gorsky recorded the every day existence of ordinary people. These Murgan villagers could almost be a modern family in fancy dress for a day, except perhaps for the weathered features of the parents. However, this was taken the same year that the first prototype tank was tested by the British Army and Einstein had his first thought or two about relativity.

Russia was not just Russian when Prokudin-Gorsky took his pictures. Above is the Emir of Bukhara, in what is now modern day Uzbekistan, taken in 1910. The gorgeous colors of his robes indicate his importance. Prokudin-Gorsky died in 1944 in German occupied Paris. The times he had recorded, of the Tsar and his empire were long gone. However, he recorded for us and the world a time and a place and left behind a unique and wonderful archive that still astonishes the viewer today.

Image Credit Flickr User SPG

This feature originally appeared on Kuriositas in February, 2011. However, this version is much enhanced with more commentary and larger photographs (some have been cropped a little top and bottom).