Russian color photography of early 20th century: Prokudin-Gorsky

Today I would like to share photos of Prokudin-Gorsky photographer who is known as a pioneer of color photography in Russia. I sorted out interesting pictures from his archive in Library of Congress (USA) and will mix it with the story of his life and photography technique in this post below.


Sergey Mikhaylovich Prokudin-Gorsky was born on August 30 [O.S. August 18] 1863 Russian Empire born in the ancestral estate of Funikova Gora, in what is now Kirzhachsky District, Vladimir Oblast.

Assumption Cathedral in the Goritskii Monastery. Near Pereiaslavl-Zalesskii, 1911

His parents were of the Russian nobility, and the family had a long military history. They moved to Saint Petersburg, where Prokudin-Gorsky enrolled in Saint Petersburg State Institute of Technology to study chemistry under Dmitri Mendeleev. He also studied music and painting at the Imperial Academy of Arts.

Baling machine for hay, 1915

In 1889, he traveled 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.

Blast furnaces at the Satkinskii factory, 1910

In 1890, Prokudin-Gorsky married Anna Aleksandrovna Lavrova, and later the couple had two sons, Mikhail and Dmitri, and a daughter, Ekaterina. Anna was the daughter of the Russian industrialist Aleksandr Stepanovich Lavrov, an active member in the Imperial Russian Technical Society (IRTS). 

Borodino Station, 1911

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. He also joined Russia's oldest photographic society, the photography section of the IRTS, presenting papers and lecturing on the science of photography.

Church of Saint John the Theologian, on Ishna. View from the south. Rostov Velikii, 1910

In 1901, he established a photography studio and laboratory in Saint Petersburg and further developed Miethe's methods on color photography.

Church of the Ascension, in Vytegra. [Russian Empire], 1909

Throughout the years, his photographic work, publications and slide shows to other scientists and photographers in Russia, Germany and France earned him praise, and, in 1906, he was elected the president of the IRTS photography section and editor of Russia's main photography journal, the Fotograf-Liubitel.

City of Vladimir. View of Assumption Cathedral from the other side of the river, 1911

Perhaps Prokudin-Gorsky's best-known work from the time is the only color portrait of Leo Tolstoy, which was then reproduced in various publications and printed for framing and on postcards.

Detail of church [of the Resurrection on the Blood], 1905-1915

The fame from this photo and his earlier photos of Russia's nature and monuments earned him invitations to show his work to the Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich of Russia, Empress Maria Feodorovna, and, eventually, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and his family in 1909.

Dinner during haying. [Russian Empire], 1909

The Tsar enjoyed the demonstration, and, with his blessing, Prokudin-Gorsky got the permission and funding to document Russia in color. In the course of ten years, he was to make a collection of 10,000 photos.

Eastern portion of Chertovo Gorodishche, 1910

Prokudin-Gorsky considered the project his life's work and continued his photographic journeys through Russia until after the October Revolution.

Embankment of Lake Seliger. Fishing settlements on Lake Seliger, 1910

He was appointed to a new professorship under the new regime, but he left the country in August 1918.

Extracting a spoke from the dam (Poare system). [Russian Empire], 1909

He still pursued scientific work in color photography, published papers in English photography journals and, together with his colleague S. O. Maksimovich, obtained patents in Germany, England, France and Italy.

Fire alarm on steamboat Sheksna. [Russian Empire], 1909

In 1920, Prokudin-Gorsky remarried and had a daughter with his assistant Maria Fedorovna née Schedrimo.

 Fishing settlement, 1915

The family finally settled in Paris in 1922, reuniting with his first wife and children. Prokudin-Gorsky set up a photo studio there together with his three adult children, naming it after his fourth child, Elka.

General view of the Church of the Transfiguration. Pidma. [Russian Empire], 1909

In the 1930s, the elderly Prokudin-Gorsky continued with lectures showing his photographs of Russia to young Russians in France, but stopped commercial work and left the studio to his children, who named it Gorsky Frères. 

Haying, near rest time. [Russian Empire], 1909

He died at Paris on September 27, 1944, and is buried in the Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois Russian Cemetery.

Mills (in Ialutorovsk district of Tobolsk Province), 1912

Photography technique

Prokudin-Gorsky's own research yielded patents for producing color film slides and for projecting color motion pictures. His process used a camera that took a series of three monochrome pictures in sequence, each through a different-colored filter. 

Head study, 1905-1915

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.

Near the small town of Iustilia, on the Saimaa Canal, 1909

The exposure time of the frames is likely to have varied, even if the developed negatives were later on similar glass plates. In a letter to Leo Tolstoy requesting a photo session, Prokudin-Gorsky described each photo as taking one to three seconds, but, when recollecting his time with Tolstoy, he described a six-second exposure on a sunny day. 

Ostrechiny. Study. [Russian Empire], 1909

Blaise Agüera y Arcas estimated the exposure of a 1909 photo taken in broad daylight to have had combined exposures of over a minute, using the movement of the moon as comparison.

Peasant girls. [Russian Empire] 1909

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. 

Steam engine Kompaund with a Schmidt super-heater, 1910

Many of the original prints from his publishing studio have survived to this day.

Pinkhus Karlinskii. Eighty-four years [old]. Sixty-six years of service. Supervisor of Chernigov floodgate. [Russian Empire], 1909

Steamer Tiumen of the Ministry of Communication and Transportation, 1912

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That's all for today. Thank you for reading my blog! See my new posts very soon!

This post based on Wikipedia topic Prokudin-Gorsky and Prokudin-Gorsky collection on Library of Congress web site. 

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