Colour Photography Pioneer Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky

Posted Friday, 27 April 2007 by Gudmund in Icon of the week, Photography
Despite being one of the very first photographers to embrace colour photography fully, the second photographer to appear in our 'Icon of the Week' series is relatively little known. A hundred years ago, between 1907 and 1915, Prokudin-Gorsky undertook an ambitious photographic survey of the Russian empire, recording thousands of amazing colour photographs on his travels.
One of Prokudin-Gorsky's triple negatives.
One of Prokudin-Gorsky's triple negatives.
<b>The same image in full colour:</b><br><em>Alim Khan, Emir of Bukhara, 1911</em><br>Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division,<br>Prokudin-Gorskii Collection, LC-DIG-prok-01886
The same image in full colour:
Alim Khan, Emir of Bukhara, 1911
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division,
Prokudin-Gorskii Collection, LC-DIG-prok-01886
<em>View of the Saint Nil Stolbenskii Monastery, 1910.</em><br>Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division,<br>Prokudin-Gorskii Collection, LC-DIG-prok-01114
View of the Saint Nil Stolbenskii Monastery, 1910.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division,
Prokudin-Gorskii Collection, LC-DIG-prok-01114

Advanced Technology

Before embarking on his ambitious project to record the "Splendors of Russia in Natural Colours" – supported by Tsar Nicolas II – Prokudin-Gorsky was already devoted to the study and advancement of colour photography; he had studied with some of the most notable scientists in the field and had several significant technological advances to his name.

The photographic technology available at the time did not produce colour images 'straight out of the box', but used the principle of colour separated negatives, recorded using red, green and blue filters. On his journeys around Russia Prokudin-Gorsky used a camera that would record 3 different exposures in (relatively) quick succession on the same glass-plate negative. Each exposure was made with a different coloured filter in front of the lens: red, green and blue. Anyone familiar with digital imaging will notice that this is exactly the same principle used to display images and colours on screen today, where colours are composed out of red, green and blue colour values.

The process of merging the separated negatives back into a single colour image was more challenging than the actual recording process. For presentations, the triple negative was put into a triple-lens projector which had the correct colour filters in front of each lens and merged the red, green and blue elements of the image into a single, full colour image. Prokudin-Gorsky also made prints out of some of his images, but this was an even more daunting process which took about 2-3 days work to produce a single print.

The reproduction limitations are undoubtedly the key to why Prokudin-Gorsky is so little known at the present time. Among the estimated 3500 photos he took, he probably only saw a fraction displayed in colour himself. The collection remained largely unseen right up until the emergence of digital technology. The fact that it only in recent years has become relatively easy to reproduce and fully appreciate his work can serve as a testament to just how far ahead of his time he was. And just to prove how technically advanced these images are: all of the colour images featured on this page have been created simply by pasting the blue, green and red elements from scans of Prokudin-Gorsky's original glass negatives into the appropriate colour channels in Photoshop and aligning them. No colour/contrast adjustments from his original exposures whatsoever!

Historically significant

From a historical point of view Prokudin-Gorsky captured the Russian Empire at a very significant time, at the eve of World War I and just before the Russian revolution of 1917. By the time he left Russia in 1918 – taking most of his negatives with him – Tsar Nicolay II and his family were dead, and Russia was a very different place.

The entire surviving collection of glass negatives, some 1900 triple negatives, were purchased by the US Library of Congress in 1948. Coinciding with the exhibition The Empire That Was Russia all of these images have recently been digitized, and are in the public domain, both in triple-negative and full colour form.


» The Russian Prokudin-Gorsky site
» The Šechtl a Voseček Museum's  Prokudin-Gorsky exhibition
» The digitized Prokudin-Gorsky collecion at the Library of Congress

Related posts:

» William Henry Fox Talbot
» How to Create Perfect Digital Black & White Photos

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By LarsCrestock on Monday, 30 April 2007 4:54 PM
I think I was reading about Uzbekistan on Wikipedia a while back when I came across one of Prokudin-Gorsky's photos of a melon vendor in Samarkand in full colours. I couldn't believe my eyes when it said the image was taken sometime between 1909-1915! If I try being reasonable, I know that everything where'nt black and white (or sepia for that matter) back then, but when I saw the caption of the melon photo, I thought "What?!? They had colours back then?!?". I suppose watching too many of those old news-reels gives you a distorted sense of reality...

For a history buff like myself, discovering the work of Prokudin-Gorsky was a real gem. While B&W/sepia has many good uses, being able to see people and places from 100 years back in almost perfect colours just makes these images a lot more vivid, I am actualy able to believe that what they show is (was) real!

The website "The Empire that was Russia" has some very interesting comments for the images presented, but if you just want a quick overview of his best photos, check out the collection of his images at the Wikimedia Commons: Wikimedia Commons

Kudos for posting this article, Prokudin-Gorsky is truly essential stuff!

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