Russia in Color Photographs, 1905-1914
(Originally published under the title “The Prokudin-Gorskii Collection of Early 20th Century Color Photographs of Russia at the Library of Congress: Unexpected Consequences of the Digitization of the Collection, 2000-2017,” in Slavic & East European Information Resources, 18 no.3/4 (Fall/winter 2017), pages 223-230. This article is a work of the U.S. government and is not subject to copyright protection in the United States)
Harold M. Leich,
Russian Area Specialist,
When I was a child, my mother used to tell me, with some regularity, “Be very careful what you wish for – you might actually get it, along with some surprises on the way....” In fact, this is exactly what has happened at the Library of Congress (LC) with the Prokudin-Gorskii collection of color photographs from the early 20th century since its digitization in 1999/2000 and our hope that the images would be of interest in Russia. We at LC never imagined the interest, enthusiasm, and passion that our digitized Prokudin-Gorskii images would evoke once they had been discovered in Russia – fulfilling, as a pleasant and welcome surprise, “on the way,” our desire to return a small part of Russia’s patrimony, a part that had by pure happenstance ended up in the U.S., back to its country of origin. So I want to concentrate in this article not on the collection itself, interesting and significant as it is, but rather on some of the most important and unexpected consequences of the discovery in Russia, and elsewhere, of LC’s digitized Prokudin-Gorskii images.
Background: The Collection and its Digitization
Russian chemist and engineer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944) developed a pioneering technology–one of the world’s first--for taking and displaying color photographs. Over the period of a decade, 1905-1915, in some cases after 1909 with funding and travel authorizations from tsar Nicholas II, he traveled throughout much of the Russian Empire and shot landscape scenes, religious structures, infrastructure apparatus, and people in European Russia, Finland, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Urals, and Western Siberia. He fled Russia in mid-1918 after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the assassination of Nicholas II and his family in July 1918, and ultimately (via Norway, England, and Nice) settled in Paris, where he died in 1944. In 1948 the Library of Congress purchased from the photographer’s sons the collection of the surviving 1,900 glass-plate negatives and 14 albums of black-and-white contact prints with identifications of images. 1
The technology developed by Prokudin-Gorskii, an improved version of the three-color method of German inventor Adolph Miethe, was awkward and required many assistants and lots of heavy equipment to shoot images, to develop the negatives, and finally to project the images on a screen or white wall (producing color prints was not the chief goal of Prokudin-Gorskii’s work). Mainstream color photography developed in different directions in the 20th century, leaving Prokudin-Gorskii’s technology orphaned – meaning that it became difficult and then, by the 1980s, virtually impossible to extract the original color from the negatives using the old pre-digital, “wet” methods. 2
In 1995 two LC employees, one in the Scan Center and the other in the Interpretive Programs Office (the Library’s exhibitions operation), came up with the idea of digitizing the three color-separation shots on each 3" x 9" glass negative and digitally superimposing them one on the other, to see whether the full color image originally captured almost a century before could be recovered (much as Prokudin-Gorskii’s magic-lantern projector merged the three color separations on each negative into one image when he showed them on a screen or wall). Several trial runs over the next several years ultimately proved successful, yielding color images that appeared fresh and crisp and clear, almost as if they had just been taken.
As a result of these experiments, the entire collection of glass negatives and albums was digitized in 1999-2000 and is available world-wide on the Internet.3 An exhibit of sixty of the most striking images was held in the Jefferson Building of LC, June-September 2001, and attracted a lot of attention and press coverage.4 With financial and logistical support from the American Embassy in Moscow, this same exhibit was taken to St. Petersburg in April 2003, where it was on display for a month at the State Russian Museum. The exhibit was then shown twice later in 2003 (June and November-December) at the Shchusev Architecture Museum in Moscow, and in March 2004 a special exhibit was held for the Federation Council.5 The original LC exhibit then traveled to 14 cities around European Russia as well as to Georgia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Slovenia, and Austria.6
Quite apart from the LC exhibit itself, in 2006-2007 the Šechtl-Voseček Museum in Tábor, Czech Republic, mounted an interesting exhibition of Prokudin-Gorskii color photographs and included some of that museum’s own color images made from negatives using a tripartite technology very similar to that used by Prokudin-Gorskii.7
LC’s goals in digitizing the Prokudin-Gorskii images and making them available universally on the Internet were twofold. The first and primary one was to preserve the negatives and albums, which were in deteriorating condition and could not be served to users (they had spent several decades in a musty basement in Paris), and make them accessible again for the first time in many years, in the process recovering the original color captured by Prokudin-Gorskii a century earlier. The second goal, more philosophical and altruistic, was to return to Russia in a usable form an important and interesting part of that country’s historical and artistic patrimony – a part that had been largely ignored, forgotten, and even vilified in the Soviet era.
Consequences of Digitizing the Collection
There was a natural time lag of a few years, but exhibits in Russia, particularly at the Shchusev Museum in Moscow and in provincial cities such as Orenburg, Petrozavodsk, Rostov-Velikii, Nizhnii Novgorod, and Ostashkov, made many Russians aware for the first time of the existence of full-color images of pre-revolutionary Russia, often of their own towns and villages. In addition, since many of the structures documented by Prokudin-Gorskii (especially churches, chapels, cathedrals, mosques, and synagogues) had been targets of anti-religious campaigns in the Soviet era, our collection provided unique documentation of structures that had been damaged, radically altered, or completely destroyed in the 20th century.
Here in summary are some of the more interesting and surprising concrete consequences of the discovery in Russia of the full-color images of pre-revolutionary Russia on the LC website:
- the establishment of websites and blogs about Prokudin-Gorskii and his work (many of these sites include “then-and-now” shots comparing the early 1900s images with what the locales look like today);
- the production of at least five Russian documentary films about the photographer and his work, all but two shot partially on site at LC;
- several university dissertations on Prokudin-Gorskii and his work;
- a boom in the publication of books in Russia and several other countries about the photographer in 2013, the 150th anniversary of his 1863 birth; these books were often accompanied by exhibits;
- the establishment in 2016 of a “Museum of Prokudin-Gorskii” at a middle school in central Moscow (open by appointment with the curator).
To go into detail about these, let me begin by noting and recommending the “Heritage of S. M. Prokudin-Gorsky” website8 and its blog, “Old Color.”9 Founded and run by two young men in Moscow, Vasilii Driuchin and Viacheslav Ratnikov, this is the most scholarly and serious website dealing with Prokudin-Gorskii and his work. The website itself features a lively discussion forum, and the blog contains almost daily posts of new information about details of Prokudin-Gorskii’s life and work, much of which is still in fact mysterious and unknown. It displays “then-and-now” comparisons of the original Prokudin-Gorskii images with shots taken in the past year or so. It also includes a lot of corrections and amplifications to the identification of individual images in the collection (a number of the identifications provided by Prokudin-Gorskii are incorrect or incomplete, and some images are not identified at all). This is incredibly useful to us since, being thousands of miles from Russia, we are not in a position to identify or correct identifications of photographs that are in many cases readily accessible to the guys in Moscow.
The first Russian websites displaying Prokudin-Gorskii photographs, dating back to 2003-2004, were devoted to showing his photographs of a specific city or town. Some of these are still active, e.g. one for the town of Ostashkov10, while regretfully a number of others are no longer maintained or accessible11. Nevertheless, these local sites did serve the useful purpose of bringing the photographer’s work to broader attention throughout Russia.
Between 2007 and 2013 at least five Russian documentary films were made about the Prokudin-Gorskii color photographs, and three of these were partially shot on site at LC and included interviews with the LC staff who had been involved with digitizing the collection and interpreting it to users. (The BBC had produced what was probably the first documentary on the collection of color photographs in 200312). In the case of the Russian documentaries, we did not always receive a copy of the final product, so these films are often difficult to cite and keep track of, and in addition the copies we did receive (on DVD) are sometimes not readable on our computers.
In 2007 the first Russian documentary appeared, authored by Svetlana Garanina and K. Kasatov, produced by A. Gundorov et al.13 In school year 2008/09, a group of information technology students taught by Vasilii Driuchin at the Romanovskaia School (formerly Middle School #96) in central Moscow produced an admirable documentary, released in 2009, based on LC’s digitized Prokudin-Gorskii photographs. These students kindly sent this author a copy of the CD, which arrived damaged and not viewable, although I was able to get a copy in 2010 when I was in Moscow, invited to visit the school, and meet with the students and the organizers of the “Heritage of S. M. Prokudin-Gorsky” website.14
Also in 2008/09 Igor’ Meletin, of Art-Nuvo Studio in Moscow, produced a documentary film about Prokudin-Gorskii and his work, including much footage filmed at LC and interviews with LC staff. The film was released in 201015. Again in 2008, apparently a good year for starting Prokudin-Gorskii documentaries, Ivan Martynov, a student at the Gerasimov Cinematography Institute in Moscow, visited LC to film a documentary to use as the dissertation for his candidate’s degree from the institute. The film includes much old black and white film footage from pre-revolutionary Russia and old still photographs, contrasting these to the fresh, new look of Prokudin-Gorskii’s color photos from the same era.16
Perhaps the best, highest-profile, and most controversial of the Prokudin-Gorskii documentaries is also the most recent one, filmed in 2012 and released in 2013 (the “anniversary” year, 150 years since the photographer’s birth), produced by acclaimed Russian documentary film director Leonid Parfenov17. Parfenov visited LC in October 2012 for several days and filmed interviews with staff and shots of the components of the collection. At the end of his film, Parfenov seems to imply that the Russia of Prokudin-Gorskii’s era was when the country truly was “in bloom” (playing on the double meaning of the Russian word tsvet as ‘color’ and as ‘flower/bloom’) – as compared with the Russia of today. This author translated the Russian script of Parfenov’s documentary into English so that it would be available in the English-speaking world.18
In addition to websites and documentaries, interest in Prokudin-Gorskii has generated several dissertations that we are aware of, in addition to Martynov’s documentary, used as the dissertation for his candidate’s degree at the Gerasimov Institute. One of the first was by Roman Andreevich Kotov at the Journalism Faculty of St. Petersburg State University19. In addition, Dina Akhmadeeva, a Russian student at Oxford University, produced a dissertation (in English) in 201320.
Exhibitions and Books
The anniversary year of 2013, already referred to, saw a number of exhibits and books published about Prokudin-Gorskii and his work. The most significant Russian publication was by Prokudin-Gorskii veteran researcher Svetlana Petrovna Garanina (Moscow State University of Culture and the Arts, Khimki) – a luxuriously illustrated album with extensive text and high-quality photographic reproductions21. The original edition, funded by the Russian railroad system (Rossiiskie zheleznye dorogi), was released at an anniversary exhibition in late August 2013 at the Solzhenitsyn Library (Dom russkogo zarubezh’ia) in Moscow. Publication of books continued after the anniversary year, with an important album of high-quality reproductions of photographs22 and a short description of Prokudin-Gorskii’s life and work23, both issued in 2016.
Commemorations of Prokudin-Gorskii’s 150th anniversary in 2013 took place also outside Russia. An exhibition in Paris, at the Musée Ossip Zadkine, curated by Véronique Gautherin-Koehler and open from October 2013 until May 2014, was accompanied by a major book written by the curator and included very high-quality reproductions of a number of Prokudin-Gorskii images obtained from the LC website24. Germany also produced an important contribution to the anniversary, with the publication of a large album of high-quality color reproductions of a number of Prokudin-Gorskii photographs25.
A Prokudin-Gorskii Museum
Finally, in 2016 a “Museum of Prokudin-Gorskii” was established at the Romanovskaia School mentioned earlier. The founder and curator is Vasilii Driuchin, teacher of computer and information science and the teacher who led his students to produce the 2009 documentary referred to earlier26. The museum, being in a school, is open to visitors by appointment only, but is the only one of its kind anywhere in the world27. The school is scheduled to be remodeled at some point in the next few years, and it is unclear where the museum will be located when that happens.
One of the most valuable, and intangible, consequences of LC’s making available on the Internet the entire Prokudin-Gorskii collection has been the establishment of close personal contacts among specialists, curators, experts in photography, descendants of Prokudin-Gorskii, and others interested in the collection both in Russia and the U.S., as well as in France and elsewhere. I have been in regular contact since 2003 with Svetlana Petrovna Garanina, pioneer researcher on Prokudin-Gorskii since the 1970s (often at risk to her career, in the Soviet period, for studying someone who emigrated because of the 1917 revolution and had been highly critical of the Soviet regime). LC staff are also in contact with descendants of Prokudin-Gorskii in France, some of whom retain valuable family archival materials and photographs of their ancestor.
During trips to Russia in 2010, 2011, and 2012, I was able to meet the men responsible for the “Heritage of S. M. Prokudin-Gorsky” website. They drove me to a number of places in Vladimir oblast’ where Prokudin-Gorskii was born and spent his early years, and showed me locations in St. Petersburg where he later lived and had his studios. One of these guys, Vasilii Driuchin, has visited Washington and LC three times, most recently in February 2017, to research the collection and use books and journals related to Prokudin-Gorskii at LC that are unavailable in Russian libraries. Obviously, everybody benefits from these personal contacts and communication, and the body of knowledge about the photographer and his work has grown greatly because of these contacts.
In conclusion, the digitization and accessibility of the Prokudin-Gorskii collection had consequences that were unexpected and far beyond what we at LC had anticipated when the decision to digitize the collection was made in the late 1990s. It is quite likely that more surprises will happen in the years to come.
An earlier version of this paper was given April 8, 2017 at the Southern Conference on Slavic Studies, Alexandria, VA. The author would like to thank colleagues Grant Harris and Angela Cannon for comments on earlier drafts, and Roy Robson (Pennsylvania State U. Abington) and Johanna Bockman (George Mason U.) for serving as chair and discussant, respectively, of the panel at which this paper was given.
- The best English-language overview of the collection, its history and subsequent acquisition and digitization by the Library of Congress, is: Jeremy Adamson and Helena Zinkham, “The Prokudin-Gorskii Legacy: Color Photographs of the Russian Empire, 1905-1915,” Comma, International Journal on Archives, 2002 no.3/4: 107-145. [Return to text]
- A book published in 1980, Robert Allshouse, Photographs for the Tsar: the Pioneering Color Photography of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii Commissioned by Tsar Nicholas II (New York: Dial Press, 1980) and a small exhibit in 1986/87 at LC, curated by William Brumfield, are the only known cases of the production in the United States of pre-digital color prints from the original negatives. [Return to text]
- Available at: http://www.loc.gov/collection/prok with various options for searching and browsing the entire collection. [Return to text]
- The exhibit remains accessible online: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/empire/ [Return to text]
- A special, detailed catalog with extensive text was produced for the November-December 2003 exhibition at the Shchusev Museum: Viktor Minakhin, Svetlana Garanina, Dostoprimechatel’nosti Rossii v natural’nykh tsvetakh: ves’ Prokudin-Gorskii, 1905-1916 [The splendors of Russia in natural colors: the complete Prokudin-Gorsky, 1905-1916] (Moskva: Restavrator-M, 2003). [Return to text]
- Russian cities in which the LC exhibit was displayed: 2003 in Orenburg, IAroslavl’, Petrozavodsk, Ivanovo; 2004, Shuia; 2005, Semkhoz; 2006, Vladimir, Nizhnii Novgorod; 2007, Ekaterinburg, Cheliabinsk, Tiumen’, Izhevsk, Omsk, Kazan’. [Return to text]
- The exhibition is available online at: http://sechtl-vosecek.ucw.cz/en/expozice5.html external link [Return to text]
- http://www.prokudin-gorsky.org/ external link [Return to text]
- http://oldcolor.livejournal.com/ external link [Return to text]
- http://www.ostashkov.ru/foto/prokudin2003 external link [Return to text]
- For example the site for Chimkent (now Shymkent in Kazakhstan), the former URL was: http://chimkent.by.ru/Gorskii.html external link [Return to text]
- The Tsar’s Last Picture Show (London: BBC Resources, 2003). [Return to text]
- TSvet vremeni: dokumental’nyi fil’m [The color of time: a documentary film] (Moskva: Tsentr-Studio natsional’nogo fil’ma “XXI veka”, 2007). [Return to text]
- 100 let rossiiskoi tsvetnoi fotografii [100 years of Russian color photography].Team leader, Ana Kondratiuk; project leaders, Vasilii Driuchin and Anton Moiseev (Moscow, 2009). [Return to text]
- Rossiia v tsvete [Russia in color]. Producer Igor’ Meletin (Moscow: Art-Nuvo Studio, 2010). Available at: http://tvkultura.ru/brand/show/brand_id/28232 external link [Return to text]
- Istoriia v tsvete [History in color]. Produced by Ivan Martynov (Moscow: Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography, 2010). [Return to text]
- TSvet natsii [Bloom of the nation]. Produced by Leonid Parfenov (Moscow, 2013). [Return to text]
- The documentary with the title Russia in Bloom and English subtitles is available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NxM5AntLPh0 external link [Return to text]
- Kotov Roman Andreevich, Tvorcheskii put’ fotografa i zhurnalista S.M. Prokudina-Gorskogo: sud’ba kollektsii [The career of photographer and journalist S.M. Prokudin-Gorskii]. Diplomnaia rabota (St. Peterburg: Sankt-Peterburgskii gos. universitet, Fakul’tet zhurnalistiki, 2008). [Return to text]
- Dina Akhmadeeva, Leave Our Ordinary Methods of Memorising Far Behind: the Tripartite Photography of Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii. PhD dissertation, Oxford University, 2013. [Return to text]
- S. P. Garanina, Rossiiskaia imperiia v tsvetnykh fotografiiakh S.M. Prokudina-Gorskogo, 1906-1916 [The Russian Empire in the color photographs of S. M. Prokudin-Gorskii, 1906-1916] (Moskva: Krasivaia strana, 2013). A second edition with the same title, with expanded text and higher-quality reproductions of the photographs, was issued in 2015 by the same publisher under its new name, Krasivaia kniga. [Return to text]
- TSvetnaia imperiia: Rossiia do potriasenii: fotograf Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii [The color empire: Russia before the calamities: the photographer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii] (Moskva: RIPOL klassik, 2016). [Return to text]
- Liudmila Semova, Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (Moskva: Komsomol’skaia Pravda, 2016). [Return to text]
- Véronique Koehler, Voyage dans l’ancienne Russie: les photographies en couleurs de Serguei Mikhailovitch Procoudine-Gorsky [Journey to old Russia: the color photographs of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii] (Paris: Albin Michel, 2013). The museum’s website is at: http://www.zadkine.paris.fr/ external link [Return to text]
- Robert Klanten, editor, Nostalgia: the Russian Empire of Czar Nicholas II (Berlin: Gestalten, 2012). [Return to text]
- http://p-g-museum.org/ external link. The school is located at Bol’shoi Tishinskii pereulok 39, Moscow. [Return to text]
- For a brief article about the museum and an interview with Driuchin, see Elena Zhikhareva, “Istoriia v tsvete” [History in color], Russkii pioner, no.2 (71) (March 2017): 68-75. [Return to text]