Arts, Culture, Endeavors

Prokudin-Gorsky’s Images of Early 20th-Century Russia

Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii / Public domain-Russia

The “Russias”

Stretched across two continents, lies that far-flung spread known in the broadest terms as “Russia,” though it has often been pluralized as “the Russias.” Part European, part Asian, the national anthem memorializes this diverse conglomeration of tribes and ethnicities as “the age-old union of fraternal peoples.”

At its greatest size, Russia and its satellite countries, incorporated as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), covered one-sixth of the earth’s land surface. With the breakup of the Soviet Union and the return of many of its republics to an independent status, the Russian Federation still occupies one-eighth of the earth’s habitable land. Russia has always been and continues to be a de facto empire, for its large empty spaces and disparate cultures have always required a centralized government capable of coordinating cultures and ways of life having very little in common.

The Photographic Survey of Prokudin-Gorsky

Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky [Gorskii] (1863-1944), Russian chemist and pioneer in color photography, traveled to over 30 different regions to create his photographic survey of early twentieth-century Russia. Inspired by German photochemistry professor Adolf Miethe, Prokudin-Gorsky preferred Miethe’s three-color photographic process above that of the Lumière brothers’ popular autochrome process.

From 1909-1915 he documented the breadth of Russian culture, history, and modernization using three-color image photography. Russia, the last European country to modernize, was still made up of people groups living as they had for a thousand years. The world was changing, and it was the last gasp before many of these sights would be snuffed out by industrialization. Although his work was officially begun under the auspices of Tsar Nicholas II, Prokudin-Gorsky continued until 1918 when he traveled to Norway on assignment and never returned. He eventually settled in France where he died.

Prokudin-Gorsky traveled to France where he met the Lumière brothers, developers of the autochrome. Beautiful though the autochromes were, he decided in favor of Adolph Miethe’s three-color process. This autochrome is an example of the grainy, yet dreamy, quality produced by the former method. The effect is similar in appearance to the pointillism technique of some French Impressionist artists, which was popular at that time. Credit: Pont du Change, quai de Saône.Plaque autochrome Lumière, 1935. Collection Institut Lumière. Anonymous/ Public domain.

Detail Comparison of Pointillism and Autochrome (Click on images below to read full descriptions)

Prokudin-Gorsky preferred the three-color process developed by German photochemist Adolph Miethe. He used three separate filters of red, blue, and yellow to create these colors. This is the site of the former palace of Empress Catherine the Great. City of Shlisselburg. [Russian Empire] [1909] From the U.S. Library of Congress.
Prokudin-Gorsky’s work stands as a record of the handiwork, arts, and crafts of the Russian peoples of centuries’ long standing. Most of these ways of life were overturned in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and the escalation towards mechanization and modernization. As with most countries around the world, industrialization meant mobility, urbanization, and shifting economies, which led to the loss of traditional skills that had been perfected and translated through nuclear and extended families over centuries, from mother to daughter and from father to son.

Prokudin-Gorsky’s work stands as a witness to the high artisanship possessed by common people of the day. It is astounding to think of the skill required to produce many of the textiles, lace work, furnishings, and architectural features that show up in his beautiful photos. It is not even possible to reproduce many of these common items today with the same level of skill — not by machine, at least.

Most of Prokudin-Gorsky’s photographs are now held by the U.S. Library of Congress. In 2000, digitization of his photographs was begun in order to make them available to more people. Click on gallery images below to pull up full descriptions.

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