Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Early Twentieth Century Color Photography

I think I may have blogged on this before, but it bears repeating as the subject is so very fascinating.
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.

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.
Those plates contained three almost identical images taken through three filters: blue, red and green. When show simulataneously, as Prokudin-Gorskii did for audiences later, they form richly detailed color images. The Library of Congress was able to clean the plates and use a process called digichromatography to make startling color photographs.

Go to the site and browse them. It's a rare peek into the past that startles modern viewers who are used to thinking of the past in black and white terms. He shows that color wasn't uncommon at all. It doesn't hurt that Prokudin-Gorskii had a painter's eye for composition. Some of his landscapes draw you right into the frame.

Go, go!

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