A century ago, when photography was still something of an experimental proposition, Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky embarked on an extraordinary mission to document the diversity of life in the vastness of Imperial Russia. Equipped with a clever spring-operated camera of his own design and travelling in a private railroad carriage provided by Tsar Nicolas II, he journeyed the length and breadth of the empire, photographing villages and cities, churches and mosques, princes and vagabonds – and most startling of all, his vibrant pictures were all captured in colour. The often candid scenes are even more arresting to the modern viewer when one considers that within a few years of Prokudin-Gorsky’s first shots, the Bolsheviks had seized power in the October Revolution, the Tsar and his family had been murdered, and the lives of those who were caught on camera would never be the same again.
The Prokudin-Gorsky method
At its inception in the 1830s photography was a black-and-white affair; colour photography would languish in the darkroom until the late 1860s when various rudimentary methods were devised for recreating primitive colour images. Prokudin-Gorsky’s technique, developed in the first decade of the twentieth century, relied on a camera that took three images in quick succession through different coloured filters.
It was then possible to reconstruct the original scene in colour by projecting all three monochrome plates simultaneously through the right quality of light. Although ground breaking for its day, the Prokudin-Gorsky method was not without its drawbacks. As the three images were taken at slightly different times (at best, over a period of six seconds but frequently taking much longer) any restlessness on the part of the subject during the exposure time showed up in print as garish multi-coloured smudging. We can only imagine, therefore, that our valiant and road weary hero suffered frequent exasperations at the hands of fidgeting children and agitated camels as he went about his delicate labours. Ironically it is only recently, in the age of Photoshop and the digitisation of photography, that Prokudin-Gorsky’s venerable images have been widely seen at their full potential. Curious observers in the Tsar’s day generally had to be satisfied with slideshow projections, as a long and laborious printing procedure prohibited the mass production of colour prints. Prokudkin-Gorsky also found himself dedicating much of his time away from the camera lenses to touring the lecture circuit in order to help fund his on-going expeditions, thereby leaving precious little time for the business of printing. However, some of his pictures did reach the public in their true quality, sometimes appearing in contemporary journals and books, or at other times featuring on postcards – a hugely popular communications phenomena at the time and in some ways the Edwardian equivalent of a text message.
Before he was famous
Prokudin-Gorsky was born in St Petersburg in 1863 into a minor noble family with a long-standing military tradition. Having a more cerebral bent than his forefathers, Prokudin-Gorsky passed on a military career and decided instead to enter the Saint Petersburg Institute of Technology to study chemistry, also finding time to study painting and music at the Imperial Academy of Arts. Chemistry and the Arts may not sound immediately like a happy marriage of subjects but Prokudin-Gorsky’s interest in both would meet perfectly in his passion for photography. In 1889, at the age of twenty-six he travelled to Germany to study photochemistry at the Berlin Technical University. There he met and studied under Adolf Miethe, a fellow pioneer of colour photography, who was conducting early experiments with a three-color system. Realising that Miethe’s methods of colour photography needed further development, Prokudin-Gorsky established his own photographic studio upon his return to Russia in the early 1890s allowing him to continue his research. As the years passed he made a name for himself in Russian photography circles, winning prizes for his colour exhibitions, publishing a booklet on instant handheld cameras, and writing technical articles on the principals of colour reproduction. By 1907, however, he was developing grander designs. A desire was building in his heart to undertake a comprehensive visual survey of the Russian Empire, documenting the rich diversity of its people, places and geography, across all its disparate regions. Surely the sheer might and enormity of the Russian realm was deserving of such an ambitious endeavour? And Prokudin-Gorsky, with his rapidly improving colour photography skills, believed he was just the man to carry it out.
Capturing the empire on film
To have any chance of bringing his monumental plans to fruition, Prokudin-Gorsky required an equally big break. Fortunately, he didn’t have long to wait. The catalyst for his sudden rise to prominence came in 1908, and in rather unexpected fashion, when he chanced his luck with a letter to Russia’s grand old man of letters, Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy:
“Dear Lev Nikolaevich, Not long ago I had the occasion to develop a colour photographic plate which someone had taken of you (I forget the person’s name). The result was extremely bad, since, apparently, the photographer was not well acquainted with his task…”
As it turned out, the trashing of a competitor’s professional skills paid dividends and the elderly author of gratuitously long literature was willing to indulge Prokudin-Gorsky’s request for a photo shoot. The resultant (superior) colour portrait, produced after a short stay at Tolstoy’s Yasnaya Polyana country estate, became a huge hit across the nation. It was reproduced in books, in journals, on postcards and would no doubt have been put on T-shirts had the technology been available at the time. Much more importantly, however, it caught the eye of the only man who could make Prokudin-Gorsky’s dream of an Imperial photographic survey a reality – Tsar Nicolas II himself. Prokudin-Gorsky was invited to give a presentation to the Tsar and his family in 1909, and used the opportunity to propose his grand ethnographic venture. So taken was the Tsar by the colour photographs on show, that he agreed to give Prokudin-Gorsky his backing, granting him royal funding as well as providing all necessary visa documentation for his travels – no mean feat in a bureaucracy such as Russia’s. With all obstacles thus surmounted, Prokudin-Gorsky set of on what he regarded as his life’s work, taking over 10,000 photographs over the course of the next nine years, right up until the days of the October Revolution. Prokudin-Gorsky left Russia for good in 1918, dying in German occupied Paris as an old man in 1944. Several hundred of his colour photographs have survived the caprices of history and continue to enthral, startle and inspire. Now, thanks to the wonders of digital imagery, they have been preserved in their full finery as an exotic record of a by gone age and a lost world.
by Tom Wellings