History

The Russian Empire in Color by Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky

Haying Near the Resting Place, 1909
Haying Near the Resting Place, 1909

Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorsky was a photographer who’s experience in chemistry created one of the earliest techniques of color photography, which he used to document the scope of the Russian empire prior to the revolution, giving us a glimpse into the lives and cultures of the time.

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 Tsar Nicholas II. Between 1909–1912, and again in 1915, he completed surveys of eleven regions, traveling in a specially equipped railroad car provided by the Ministry of Transportation.

 It is said that Prokudin-Gorsky had created some 3,500 negatives in his journeys across the Russian Empire, although only about 1,902 have been recovered.

The technique in itself would take three different images, each through a certain filter. When put through a certain light, the photos would recreate the original scene in full color. It would only be until nearly a century later when Prokudin-Gorsky’s original negatives, purchased by the Library of Congress in 1948, would be fully put together, the photographer unfortunately, did not live to see his life’s work realized.

Here are some of his images. For a full collection of the Russian Empire in color visit the Library of Congress website.

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