The Prokudin-Gorskii Photographic Record Recreated: The Empire That Was Russia
Photographer to the Tsar
Prokudin-Gorskii left Russia in 1918, going first to Norway and England before settling in France. By then, the tsar 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; the digital technology that makes these superior color prints possible; and celebrates the fact that for the first time many of these wonderful images are available to the public.
Born in Murom, Vladimir Province, Russia (originally believed to be 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 systematically document 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 Tsar 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. He conducted many illustrated lectures of his work. Prokudin-Gorskii left Russia in 1918, after the Russian Revolution, and eventually settled in Paris, where he died in 1944.
Portrait of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii
Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944) 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.
Expedition to the Urals
Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii and members of his photographic team are shown here at their overnight campground. The site is near the Chusovaia River, on the western side of the Ural Mountains which divide Europe from Asia.
Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. Overnight Camp by a Rock on the Bank of the Chusovaia River, 1912. Digital color rendering. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. (LC-DIG-ppmsc-04445) (2)
Austro-Hungarian Prisoners of War
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. This image escaped being confiscated by border guards—the fate of the vast majority of politically sensitive images—when Prokudin-Gorskii left Russia for good in 1918—probably because what is being represented is not immediately obvious.
Glass Plate Negative
Shown here is one of the thousands of glass plate negatives made by Prokudin-Gorskii. The negatives served two purposes. Primarily they were used to produce positive glass slides for his illustrated lectures about the Russian Empire. Prokudin-Gorskii projected the slides through the red, green, and blue filters of a device known as a “magic lantern” which superimposed the images onto a screen resulting in a full-color picture. Secondly, Prokudin-Gorskii used the negatives to print reference photographs of his journeys which were mounted in albums.
Album of Reference Photographs
Prokudin-Gorskii created albums to serve as photographic records of his trips across the Russian Empire. Each album is composed of contact prints—created from his glass plate negatives—which were mounted in the order in which he traveled. The album page shown here was created in 1915 during his last known documentary trip.