Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Great links: Prokudin-Gorskii's color photographs of Russia

Would you believe that this color photograph was taken in 1909?

It's a cropped-in portion of one of the amazing images captured by pioneering Russian photographer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii1 when he made a visual record of his country in the early 20th century. Working with the support of Tsar Nicholas II, Prokudin-Gorskii traveled across Russia, mostly by train, from 1909 to 1912 and again in 1915 to complete his photographic surveys.

His images add a breathtaking color context to a place and period that, for most of us, is cast in mystery and shades of sepia and grey.

The United States Library of Congress purchased Prokudin-Gorskii's sprawling collection in 1948 for a few thousand dollars and now makes it easily available in the public domain. The Library's collection is organized online at "The Empire That Was Russia."

The exhibit includes an explanation of how color images were produced from Prokudin-Gorskii's glass-plate negatives. According to the Library, the photographer himself used the negatives "to produce positive glass slides for his illustrated lectures about the Russian Empire. Prokudin-Gorskii projected the slides through the red, green, and blue filters of a device known as a 'magic lantern' which superimposed the images onto a screen resulting in a full-color picture."

Pictured below is the full image of the three girls in colorful dresses offering up plates of food. The description of the 1909 photograph states: "Three young women offer berries to visitors to their izba, a traditional wooden house, in a rural area along the Sheksna River, near the town of Kirillov."

Here are three more stunning images, and their captions, from the Library of Congress' Prokudin-Gorskii archive:

Above: "General view of the Nikolaevskii Cathedral from southwest in Mozhaisk in 1911." The cathedral was constructed from 1802 to 1814.

(This has been one of my favorite shots since I was first made aware of the Prokudin-Gorskii photos by this Boston.com article.)

Above: "Alternators made in Budapest, Hungary, in the power-generating hall of a hydroelectric station in Iolotan (Eloten)2, Turkmenistan, on the Murghab River, ca. 1910."

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

There are many amazing scenes and treasures to be found in these photos, which are now more than a century old. Check out the Library of Congress' website and start exploring!

1. Or Sergey Mikhaylovich Prokudin-Gorsky, as Wikipedia chooses to spell his name, using its own Russian language romanization guideline.
2. Or Ýolöten, as it is now spelled in English.


  1. It just goes to show how people leave a legacy behind with their work and travels when they dedicate themselves to doing their best. I would never have guessed that those images were over a century old. The quality of the pictures of Russia makes them look quite modern.

  2. were these russian photographer's pictures colored when originally taken or they have been digitally enhanced or improved using some similar technique? Did we have colored pictures in those days?

    1. Here's a link to the Library of Congress' description of how the color images were created: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/empire/making.html

      An excerpt: "We know that Prokudin-Gorskii intended his photographic images to be viewed in color because he developed an ingenious photographic technique in order for these images to be captured in black and white on glass plate negatives, using red, green and blue filters. He then presented these images in color in slide lectures using a light-projection system involving the same three filters."