By JOHN VAN OUDENAREN
"The Empire That Was Russia: The Prokudin-Gorskii Photographic Record Recreated" will be on view through August, Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. in the South Gallery of the Great Hall of the Jefferson Building. View the exhibition online.
The photographs of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944) offer a vivid portrait of a lost world—the Russian Empire on the eve of World War I and the coming 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.
In the early 1900s, Prokudin-Gorskii formulated an ambitious plan for a photographic survey of the Russian Empire that won the support of Czar Nicholas II. Between 1909 and 1912, and again in 1915, he completed surveys of 11 regions, traveling in a specially equipped railroad car provided by the Ministry of Transportation.
Prokudin-Gorskii left Russia in 1918, going first to Norway and England before settling in France. By then, the czar and his family had been murdered and the empire that Prokudin-Gorskii so carefully documented had been destroyed. His unique images of Russia on the eve of revolution—recorded on glass plates—were purchased by the Library of Congress in 1948 from his heirs. For this exhibition, the glass plates have been scanned and, through an innovative process known as digichromatography, brilliant color images have been produced. This exhibition features a sampling of Prokudin-Gorskii's historic images produced through the new process and the digital technology that makes these superior color prints possible. It also celebrates the fact that for the first time many of these wonderful images are available to the public.
Born in St. Petersburg in 1863 and educated as a chemist, Prokudin-Gorskii devoted his career to the advancement of photography. He studied with renowned scientists in St. Petersburg, Berlin and Paris. His own original research yielded patents for producing color film slides and for projecting color motion pictures. Around 1907, Prokudin-Gorskii envisioned and formulated a plan to use the emerging technological advancements that had been made in color photography to document systematically the Russian Empire. Through such an ambitious project, his ultimate goal was to educate the schoolchildren 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 Nicholas II, and in possession of two permits that granted him access to restricted areas and cooperation from the empire's bureaucracy, Prokudin-Gorskii documented the Russian Empire around 1907 through 1915 and conducted many illustrated lectures of his work. He left Russia in 1918, after the revolution, and eventually settled in Paris, where he died in 1944.
The Russia of Nicholas II on the eve of World War I was a land of striking ethnic diversity. Comprising all the republics of what later was to become the Soviet Union, as well as present-day Finland and much of Poland, Russia was home to more than 150 million people—of which only about half were ethnic Russians. In his travels throughout the empire, Prokudin-Gorskii captured this diversity. His color photographs of peasants from rural Russia, the nomadic peoples of Central Asia and the mountain peoples of the Caucasus predate the forced Russification and the rapid modernization of the Soviet period and document traditional costumes and ways of life.
The architectural richness of the Russian Empire reflected its long history and the cultural, ethnic and religious diversity of its people. Prokudin-Gorskii photographed medieval churches and monasteries in European Russia and mosques and Islamic schools in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Many of the buildings he photographed were later destroyed by war or revolution, but others survived the Soviet period and have been restored. In addition to religious buildings, Prokudin-Gorskii photographed houses, country estates, factories and barns. His skill as a photographer and the technical sophistication of his methods are apparent in the treatment of subjects ranging from church interiors to panoramic shots of cities.
Prokudin-Gorskii's many photographs of railroad bridges, locomotives, barges, steamers and canals reflect the importance of the transportation system in tying together the vast Russian Empire. The Ministry of Transportation operated a network of railroads and steamers, but private companies were also involved in rail, river and canal transport.
The Ministry of Transportation facilitated many of Prokudin-Gorskii's survey trips, beginning in 1909. His first trip was to survey the Mariinskii Canal system linking the upper Volga and Neva rivers. He photographed bridges, dams, locks and steamers, as well as the people who operated the system. On subsequent trips, Prokudin-Gorskii documented the achievements of Russian engineers in extending the railroads across the rugged terrain of the Urals and into Siberia. He undertook his last assignment for the ministry during World War I, when he photographed the construction of the Murmansk Railway, which was built as a supply link between Russia and its French and British allies.
By the eve of World War I, Russia had undergone rapid industrial development, much of it fueled by foreign investment and the import of technology from Western Europe. Key industries included textiles, metalworking, and chemical and oil production. At the same time, many people lived in appallingly backward conditions, especially in the countryside.
Prokudin-Gorskii documented the economic life of the empire in all its variety. He photographed farmers cultivating fields and the production of grain in the temperate regions of European Russia; the harvesting of cotton, tea and other crops in the warmer regions of the south; artisans in small shops; and large new factories equipped with the newest Russian and imported machines. Economic conditions in these same areas drastically worsened during World War I, contributing to the growth of revolutionary movements and ultimately the overthrow of the czar and the destruction of the empire.
1863 - Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii is born in St. Petersburg, Russia
1860s - Subjugation of the Caucasus
1864-1869 - Tolstoy writes War and Peace
1866 - Dostoyevsky publishes Crime and Punishment
1867 - Sale of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands to the United States
1868 - Nikolay Aleksandrovich (Nicholas II) is born at Tsarskoye Selo, near St. Petersburg
1870 - Vladimir Ilich Lenin is born in Simbirsk, Russia
1870s - Conquest of Central Asia (Khiva, Bokhara, Turkestan)
1879 - Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili (Josef Stalin) is born in Gori, Georgia (Russian Empire)
1881 - Assassination of Alexander II
1881-1894 - Reign of Alexander III
late 1880s - Prokudin-Gorskii studies the natural sciences at Petersburg Technological Institute; studies painting at the Imperial Academy of Arts; studies chemistry with D.I. Mendeleyev
1889-1891 - Prokudin-Gorskii continues his studies for two more years in Berlin and Paris; apprentices in photochemical laboratories
1891 - Construction begins on Trans-Siberian Railroad
Early 1890s - Prokudin-Gorskii returns to Russia
1894 - Death of Alexander III
1894-1917 - Reign of Nicholas II
1897 - Prokudin-Gorskii begins to present the technical results of his photographic research to the Fifth Department of the Imperial Russian Technical Society (IRTS). (He would continue these presentations through 1918.)
1898 - Prokudin-Gorskii publishes the first in a series of works on technical aspects of photography
1900 - Boxer Rebellion, Russian occupation of Manchuria
1901 - Trans-Manchurian line of the Chinese-Eastern Railway completed
1903 - Social Democrats (Marxist revolutionaries) of the Russian Empire split into two competing wings: Menshevik and Bolshevik
1904-1905 - Russo-Japanese War
1904 - Prokudin-Gorskii compiles photographic material for a large illustrated volume of the Manchurian battlefield; Trans-Siberian Railway (from Moscow to Vladivistok) completed through Manchuria
ca. 1907 - Prokudin-Gorskii envisions and formulates a plan for the photographic survey of the Russian Empire, using a camera that exposes one oblong plate three times in rapid succession through three different color filters. He presents them with a projector that combines the three images into one color combined image
1908 - Prokudin-Gorskii conducts slide presentations of his color photography innovations for audiences at IRTS, the Petersburg Photographic Society and elsewhere in St. Petersburg
May 1908 - Prokudin-Gorskii photographs Leo Tolstoy at Yasnaya Poliana
1908 - Prokudin-Gorskii conducts several presentations of his color slide projections; attracts the attention of the Grand Duke Mikhail Aleksandrovich, who facilitates an introduction to Czar Nicholas II
Early 1909 - Nicholas II invites Prokudin-Gorskii to give a slide presentation to the Imperial court at Tsarskoye Selo. Prokudin-Gorskii receives official support to implement his plan to photographically document the Russian Empire
Summer 1909 - Prokudin-Gorskii completes photographic trips along the Mariinskii Canal system and industrial areas of the Ural mountains
March 1910 - First formal viewing at court by the czar of Prokudin-Gorskii's photographs of Mariinskii Canal system and industrial areas of the Ural mountains
1910 - Prokudin-Gorskii photographs the Volga Region; death of Tolstoy
1911 - Prokudin-Gorskii photographs Turkestan and Afghanistan
1911-1912 - Prokudin-Gorskii documents the areas involved in the Napoleonic campaigns in Russia to celebrate the 100th anniversary of "The Fatherland War"
1912 - Official support for Prokudin-Gorskii's documentary project is terminated
1914 - Assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand at Sarajevo
1914-1918 - First World War
1915 - Official support for Prokudin-Gorskii's documentary project is briefly resumed; Prokudin-Gorskii documents the Murmansk Railroad
1916 - Trans-Siberian Railway completed
Feb. 1917 - February Revolution
March 1917 - Abdication of Nicholas II
Nov. 1917 - Bolshevik Revolution in Russia
July 1918 - Nicholas II and family assassinated in Yekaterinburg
Summer 1918 - Prokudin-Gorskii and his family leave Russia for Norway, then England
1922 - Prokudin-Gorskii and his family move to France
1924 - Vladimir Ilich Lenin dies in Gorki (near Moscow); Stalin succeeds Lenin and assumes title of secretary general of the Communist Party's Central Committee
1939-1945 - Second World War
1940 - Germany occupies France
Aug. 1944 - Liberation of Paris
Sept. 1944 - Prokudin-Gorskii dies in Paris
Mr. Van Oudenaren is chief of the European Division.