On a recent trip to Stockholm I took a hand full of film rolls into a really nice processing lab called Crimson. In the reception area they had a little book on display that stopped me in my tracks. It was a book of photographs made by a Russian photographer named Sergei Michailovich Prokudin-Gorskij. The images inside included landscapes, portraits, architecture, transportation and people at work, all from the early years of the 20th Century and all in color. I have long been fascinated by vintage photographs, which are almost all black and white, but these images from the last days of Tsarist Russia are fascinating because they are in full color.
At the time these images were made the Lumiere´ brothers in France were experimenting with their autochrome process, but the first commercially available color film would not be invented for another 25 years. So I wondered how Prokudin-Gorskij was able to produce color images with such clarity and accuracy? As it turns out, he developed a process of making 3 exposures of the same scene on black and white film using red, green and blue filters. When these resulting 3 images were projected in perfect registration by a 3 lens projector using the same red, green and blue filters, an accurate color photograph could be displayed. An interesting visual aspect is the rainbow effect that is created by any swift movement of the subject. If any elements in the scene moved before all 3 exposures could be made (as with the river water in the lock keepers portrait) those parts of the scene would only receive exposure through one or two of the colored filters thereby creating a rainbow effect. Prokudin-Gorskij was highly skilled as evident by the almost perfect registration he was able to achieve in creating his color images.
Once he had perfected his technique, he formulated an ambitious plan to create a photographic survey of the Russian Empire in color, and he was able to gain the financial 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 Russian Ministry of Transportation. In so doing he left us with a visual record of a place and time soon to be radically altered by the crushing effects of war and the revolution that would soon follow.
These images portray a time and place that is long gone, yet they have a hyper-real quality that is enhanced by the color renditions. It was a time before the widespread adoption of the automobile and electric lights, when Russia was still ruled by the Tsar. I think these pictures also show just how much the world was changed by World War I. The portrait of the three generations shows that change was already underway...from the traditional dress and beard style of the Russian patriarch, down to the modern westernized dress of his Grand-daughter. And that sweet little book along with an online gallery of the photographs can be found at Crimson by following the link below. It is written in Swedish, but pictures, as they say, are a universal language.