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Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky: Unbelievable Color Photos of Tsarist Russia
July 20, 2012 10:16

Sergei Mikhaylovich Prokudin-Gorsky was a Russian chemist, inventor and a unique photographer, who is best known for his pioneering work in color photography of early 20th-century Russia. We already have his biography in our "People" database, now it is time to show you some of his marvellous color photos of pre-revolutionary Russia and to reveal their secrets.

Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky was born in a family estate of Funikova Gora, in what is now Kirzhachsky District, Vladimir region. Later his family moved to St. Petersburg where Sergei enrolled in Saint Petersburg State Institute of Technology to study chemistry under Dmitri Mendeleev. He also studied classical arts at the Imperial Academy of Arts.
Prokudin-Gorsky graduated from the University in 1889 and went to Berlin to continue his studies in photochemistry at the Technical University of Berlin with Adolf Miethe, who was working on color dyes and three-color photography.
In 1890 he married Anna Aleksandrovna Lavrova, and later the couple had three children. Prokudin-Gorsky subsequently became the director of the executive board of Lavrov's metal works near Saint Petersburg and remained so until the October Revolution. But he never forgot about his true passion - photography. He joined Russia's oldest photographic society, and in 1901 he established a photography studio and laboratory in Saint Petersburg and further developed Miethe's methods on color photography.
His works and publications were praised by scientists and photographs in many countries. In 1906 Prokudin-Gorsky was elected an editor of Russia's main photography journal, the Fotograf-Lyubitel.
He first achieved a real fame for the first color portrait of Leo Tolstoy, which was then reproduced in various publications and printed for framing and on postcards.

The fame was so huge that Prokudin-Gorsky was invited to show his works to the Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich of Russia, Empress Maria Feodorovna, and, eventually, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and his family in 1909. The Tsar was pleased with the demonstration, and Prokudin-Gorsky was permitted to make a big collection of Russia's photos in color. He considered the project his life's work and continued his photographic journeys through Russia until the October Revolution. In 1918 he left the country, settled in Paris to continue his scientific reseachers, published papers in European journals and obtained several patents.

In 1920 Prokudin-Gorsky remarried and had a daughter with his assistant Maria Fedorovna nee Schedrimo. He set up a photo studio there together with his three adult children, naming it after his fourth child, Elka. He died in Paris on September 27, 1944, and is buried in the Sainte-Genevieve-des-Bois Russian Cemetery.

Great Mystery of Color Photographs

There were no any multilayer color photomaterials in the beginning of the 20th century, so Prokudin-Gorsky used black and white photo-plates and a special photo-camera by his own construction. He took a series of three monochrome pictures in sequence with the camera, 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.

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. In 1922 Prokudin-Gorsky's own research yielded patents for producing color film slides and for projecting color motion pictures. He also succeed in decreasing of exposure time (up to one second) and creating of better methods for his photos replication. Right up to 1917 many hundreds of Prokudin-Gorsky's photos were printed, 94 of them were sold as postcards and a big amount - as books and booklets. Some of his color photos issued as oversized pictures for hanging on the wall (for example, Leo Tolstoy's famous portrait). The exact amount or Prokudin-Gorsky's  printed photos just can't be counted.

In fact, Prokudin-Gorsky was not the first photographer who was making colour photos before 1917 in Russia. But he was the only one to use innovative methods of colour separation. The other photographers used an autochrome method which was easier to obtain but the result was also much worse - ready photos were too grainy and colours faded very quickly. Besides, only Prokudin-Gorsky's photo collection remained in such a good condition till our days.

Now the collection is kept in the  United States Library of Congress, which purchased the material from Prokudin-Gorsky's heirs in 1948 for $3500–$5000 on the initiative of a researcher inquiring into their whereabouts. The collection counted 1902 negatives and 710 album prints without corresponding negatives.

In spite of all the researches, the technology of color photos printing was too complicated and the results were not very qualitative. But the end of the 20th centiry was marked by the growth of computer technologies, which allowed to process Prokudin-Gorsky's photos and to show us the life in tsarist Russia.

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.  The photographs have since been the subject of many other exhibitions in the area where Prokudin-Gorsky took his photos.

Today we are glad to show you some of these legendary photos. It is really hard to believe that  it was made at the time which always seems to us to be a completely "black and white era". And the quality is really amazing.

Sources and Images: Russia-IC, Wikipedia,

Author: Julia Alieva

Tags: Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky Russian history Russian photography Russian photographers  

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