An Empire Past In Color

Originally posted by DoDo on 05/22/07

Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944) was a pioneer of color photography. His method was to take successive black & white photographs below each other on a long glass plate, with three different color filters. He then showed the images by superimposing them on a screen, using a special projection device.

A century ago, Prokudin-Gorskii got the Tsar’s endorsement for a project of documenting the Russian Empire: its architecture, landscapes, people, and nascent industry. After the revolution, Prokudin-Gorskii left the country with most of his images, which ended up in the archives of the US Library of Congress.

Then, in 2001, some 120 of the image trios were scanned, digitally cleaned, merged into a color picture, and shown in the exhibition The Empire That Was Russia. (The linked page shows only half of these, but here you can browse the entire archive of 2607 photographs: an automated program generated lower-quality raw color images for all scans.) Toronto-based graphics designer Alex Gridenko restored another 64 to full splendour.

Boris and Gleb Monastery near Torzhok, from the bridge; 1910 [Gridenko]

These images provide a breathtaking color view into a past before war and revolutionary destruction, modern industry and air pollution, graffiti and power lines. Unless something moved between the takes (kid’s head, smoke, water), quality is often like that of a modern digital photo. Below the fold, I give you some taste of it.

Crossposted from Eurotrib. Image captions taken from the source sites.

Let’s start with some peasants:

Young Russian peasant women offer berries to visitors to their izba, a traditional wooden house, in a rural area along the Sheksna River near the small town of Kirillov; 1909 [TETWR]

The wide rolling fields where agriculture dominates:

River Koloch at the village of Gorki with a high bank, near Borodino Battlefield; 1911 [Gridenko]

Now let’s see some peasants working before the spread of motorised machinery:

An early autumn scene from 1909 shows farmers taking a short break from their work to pose for their photograph. The location, though unidentified, is probably near the town of Cherepovets in north central European Russia [TETWR]

Look what is standing out in a landscape of plank houses, dirt roads, trees and grass — the dominion of the Church really showed:

A dirt road leads to the brightly painted seventeenth-century Cathedral of St. Nicholas amid modest residential structures in Mozhaisk, west of Moscow; 1911 [TETWR]

The Russian Empire wasn’t all Christian:

The Pamir Mountains provide a dramatic backdrop for an evening view of the Shakh-i Zindeh Mosque in Samarkand, a complex of graves and mortuary chapels built over many centuries for the women of the dynasties descended from Timur (Tamerlane, 1336-1405), the great medieval ruler of Central Asia; 1911 [TETWR]

More traditional trades:

A carpenter at work in Samarkand; between 1905 and 1915 [Gridenko]

But modern industry was already spreading across the empire, in all its dirtiness:

General view of Zlatoust, with Zlatoust plant and the Church of Three Saints; 1910 [Gridenko]

Though, there was modern architectural aesthetics, too:

At an unidentified location, a railroad truss bridge built on stone support columns crosses one of the wide Siberian rivers that flow northwards to the Arctic Ocean–possibly the Irtysh or the Tobol [neither: it’s the bridge of river Kama, which is in the European part and flows southwards; LoC researchers were lazy… Check real Irtysh and real Tobol bridges at -DoDo]; between 1907 and 1915 [TETWR]

But modern technology could also fit into the landscape — like on this cryingly beautiful autumn image in the Ural mountains (I discovered the archive vie this one):

View from the rear platform of the Simskaia (Simskaya) Station of the Samara-Zlatoust Railway (or South Ural Railway); 1910 [Gridenko]

Prokudin-Gorskii also photographed politically sensitive images. Here is one that escaped the watchful eyes of border guards:

In the early years of the First World War, Prokudin-Gorskii photographed a group of prisoners of war from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The men are probably Poles, Ukrainians, and members of other Slavic nationalities, imprisoned at an unidentified location in the far north of European Russia near the White Sea; 1915 [TETWR]

The above is just a small thematic selection, and image size is reduced. You should really check out The Empire That Was Russia as well as Alex Gridenko’s album. I’ll close this with a self-portrait of Prokudin-Gorskii:

Prokudin-Gorskii poses near a mountain stream, thought to be the Karolitskhali River in the Caucasus Mountains near the seaport of Batumi on the eastern coast of the Black Sea; between 1907 and 1915 [TETWR]

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