The Russian Empire, 100 years ago, in colour

Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii’s colour photographs of the Russian Empire are vividly brought to life in a new book that features 250 examples of his work from 1905-1915

Group of workers harvesting tea, between 1905 and 1915 / © LOC, LC-DIG-prokc-21522

Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii’s colour photographs of the Russian Empire are vividly brought to life in a new book that features 250 examples of his work from 1905-1915…

Prokudin-Gorskii wanted to capture the entirety of his native Russia as a way of providing its citizens with a stronger connection to their country and an idea of common identity. The photographer was even given a railroad car darkroom by Czar Nicholas II so that he could produce his pictures on the move.

Emir of Bukhara, 1911 / © LOC, LC-DIG-prokc-21887

As both a photographer and chemist, Prokudin-Gorskii developed a technique first established by Scottish mathematical physicist, James Clark Maxwell, in the mid-19th century whereby the visible spectrum was captured in the form of three black-and-white photographs taken through red, green and violet-blue filters.

Prokudin-Gorskii’s process used colour-sensitive glass plates and a camera which, say Gestalten, the publishers of Nostalgia, “exposed one oblong glass plate three times in rapid succession through the three filters”.

“For formal presentations,” they continue, “the negative plate was placed in a triple lens lantern so the three exposures could be superimposed to form a full colour image on a screen. Due to the brief time lapse between the fixation of the three frames on the plate, the perspective is slightly distorted to varying degrees on the final image and results in random shimmers of colour.”

Settler’s family in the Settlement of Grafovka in Mugan Steppe, between 1905 and 1915 © LOC, LC-DIG-prokc-21602

Prokudin-Gorskii fled Russia in 1918, eventually settling in Paris where he died in 1944. The United States Library of Congress purchased his work in 1948, but has only recently completely restoration work on the images (the LOC’s collection of Prokudin-Gorskii’s work is here).

Prior to the culmination of that project, the book, Photographs for the Tsar, was publishied in 1980 and replicated his images using yellow, magenta and cyan prints of the negatives.

On the Karolitskhali River, between 1905 and 1915 / © LOC, LC-DIG-prokc-21468. This is apparently a self-portrait of Prokudin-Gorskii

While Prokudin-Gorskii’s work was carried out decades before the widespread availability of colour film, 21st-century digital image processing techniques have now enabled the images to be seen afresh.

Indeed, much of Prokudin-Gorskii’s work has been circulating on the internet for years, with amateur restorers also bringing his images about using modern projection techniques (the Library of Congress also has high resolution versions of the negatives on its website).

Nostalgia, however, attempts to show 250 of these fascinating pictures in their best light yet – presumably as Prokudin-Gorskii would have intended.

A selection of images from the book will also appear on the CR iPad app (details on the October edition here). Nostaligia is published by Gestalten; £55. Nostalgia will also be exhibited in Europe for the first time at Gestalten Space in Berlin. The exhibition is part of the official selection of Berlin displays in the 5th European Month of Photography Festival from October 19 to November 25. More images of Prokudin-Gorskii’s work can be seen on this Wikimedia Commons page.

Molding shop at the Kasli plant, 1910 / © LOC, LC-DIG-prokc-20506

Church of the resurrection in the grove (Kostroma), 1910 / © LOC, LC-DIG-prokc-21251



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