A few weekends ago, while visiting my sister and brother in law, I stumbled across an image on a friend’s instagram account, for which she commented that she was unsure as to who the photographer was, or what the photo was all about. While doing some hunting and pecking around on my brother in law’s computer, he peeked over my shoulder and remarked that the image resembled something by Prokudin-Gorskii. (It wasn’t; some helpful hints from other friends and some further searching revealed it is a video still from an upcoming video from the psych-folk band LUST).
“Prokudin-Gorskii?” I queried. And down the rabbit hole we went!
Sergey Mikhaylovich Prokudin-Gorsky, a Russian chemist and photographer best known for his pioneering work in color photography of early 20th-century Russia, devoted his career to the advancement of photography.
He studied with renowned scientists in St. Petersburg, Berlin, and Paris and his own original research yielded patents for producing color film slides and for projecting color motion pictures. Using emerging technological advances in color photography, he made numerous photographic trips to systematically document the Russian Empire. He conducted most of his visual surveys between 1909 and 1915, although some of his work dates as early as 1905. The Empire at this time stretched 7,000 miles from west to east and 3,000 miles from north to south and comprised one-sixth of the earth’s land mass. It was the largest empire in history and spanned what today are eleven different times zones.
Tsar Nicholas II supported this ambitious project by providing passes and transportation: by rail, boat and automobile. Each journey made by Prokudin-Gorskii is represented by a photographic album and corresponding negatives.
Around 1907, Prokudin-Gorskii envisioned and formulated a plan to use the emerging technological advancements that had been made in color photography to systematically document the Russian Empire. Through such an ambitious project he intended to educate the school children of Russia with his “optical color projections” of the vast and diverse history, culture, and modernization of the Empire. Outfitted with a specially equipped railroad car-darkroom provided by Tsar Nicholas II, and in possession of two permits that granted him cooperation from the Empire’s bureaucracy and access to restricted areas, Prokudin-Gorskii documented the Russian Empire from 1909 through 1915. He conducted many illustrated lectures of his work. His assistants are sometimes credited on prints seen in other collections.
His photographs offer a vivid portrait of a lost world—the Russian Empire on the eve of World War I and the coming Russian Revolution. His subjects ranged from the medieval churches and monasteries of old Russia, to the railroads and factories of an emerging industrial power, to the daily life and work of Russia’s diverse population.
It has been estimated from Prokudin-Gorsky’s personal inventory that before leaving Russia, he had about 3500 negatives. Upon leaving the country and exporting all his photographic material, about half of the photos were confiscated by Russian authorities for containing material that seemed to be strategically sensitive for war-time Russia. According to Prokudin-Gorsky’s notes, the photos left behind were not of interest to the general public. Some of Prokudin-Gorsky’s negatives were given away and some he hid on his departure. Outside the Library of Congress collection, none has yet been found.