Monday, July 16, 2012

photographs for the tsar

i've mentioned the amazing early color photography of sergei prokudin-gorskii before, but i recently got a book (photographs for the tsar, edited by robert h. allshouse, 1980) from the library about his pioneering work with color photography.

prokudin-gorskii was a chemist by profession. he studied with mendelev (of periodic table fame). he worked abroad, in germany and france, with early pioneers of the chemistry around color photography. he returned to russia in the 1890s and began teaching the first courses on photography and photographic chemistry. in 1906, he took over editorship of a magazine for amateur photographers. although he thought that photography was profession which demanded a proper scientific background, he could see that it was so exciting that it should not remain something that was just for experts.

he developed a spring-loaded camera which produced three individual negatives, each with its own color filter - blue, green and red - which were then layered to create the final color image. the shot required a three-second exposure, so in some of the large-group shots, it's possible to see the layers because it was impossible to keep a large group still. (you can check out the entire library of the photos here.)

in 1907 he was so excited by an upcoming eclipse of the sun that he encouraged his fellow photographers to prepare for it - even inventing "the things that were necessary" to photograph it if they didn't yet exist. he believed in the power of photography to educate and record things to be preserved for future generations.

in this regard, he began to contemplate an enormous photographic project - photographing all sorts of people and places of importance across the vast russian empire. to undertake such a project, he needed both the permission and the support of tsar nicholas himself. in line with his scientific background, he set out methodically to gain that permission. connections to the grand duke mikhail aleksandrovich and the dowager empress maria fedorovna (the danish princess dagmar, just to drag in a danish connection), the tsar's mother helped him get the presentation of his life.

it was the power point to beat all power points, before power point existed. prokudin-gorskii was invited to tsarskoe selo to pitch his project. he would show the photos he had already done and outline his vision for the project. the tsar sent a special train to fetch him. he spent an entire day setting up the equipment. it would be the first time that the tsar would see images projected in color - oh, what i would have given to be in that room. it must have been an incredible moment. his images were carefully chosen - flowers, landscapes, russian peasants in fetching costume, children.

the presentation was a resounding success and he received what was essentially a blank check to begin the project. a pullman coach was outfitted for his use and all permissions were granted. he began by photographing the recently-completed mariinsky canal system (connecting the volga with the baltic sea) and continued on regular photographic documentation around the empire until the outbreak of world war II and the subsequent russian revolution. out of fear for his safety, he went into exile after the tsar was deposed by the bolsheviks. luckily, he was able to leave with his some 2000 photographic slides mostly intact. there are still ten undiscovered negatives of the romanov family which he claimed to have left behind "hidden in russia." they have not, to our knowledge, been found to this day (i can tell you that makes me want to go look for them).

these remarkable photos are pioneering in technique and an invaluable glimpse at prerevolutionary russia. they are indeed the education he hoped they would be.


Lost Star said...

Wow. This is so cool.
I love seeing old in colour, it just makes it so much more real.

Jennifer said...

So fascinating!! Thank you for sharing.

Suecae Sounds said...

I agree with Jennifer. Very fascinating. And I didn't know they made use of color film pre-soviet times. Very intriguing.

Unknown said...

I love the photos. Thanks for sharing your book with us.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Remarkable photographs. Isn't it strange how colour makes them look so contemporary?

will said...

What's fascinating to me ... snapshot style and the arrangement of people and places w/in the photo haven't changed all that much.