Around 1905 the chemist and photographer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorsky devised a plan to systematically document the Russian Empire using color photography. He received the necessary materials, a railway car refitted especially for the enterprise and a permit to enter prohibited areas from Czar Nicholas II himself. The photographs, created between 1909 and 1915, aimed to give Russian school children a better understanding of the history and culture of their mother country.
The novel photographic technique developed by Prokudin-Gorsky used a camera that exposed a glass plate three times successively through a red, then green and then blue color filter, producing three separate images on a single plate. Prokudin-Gorsky then used these negatives to create glass-slide positives. When light in all three colors was projected onto a screen through all three plates at the same time the complete color image emerged. The photographer was forced to leave Russia in 1918 and died many years later in Paris. But the possibilities of digital image processing meant that his photographs began to arouse new interest at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
In 2004 the monochrome negatives were digitized for the Library of Congress in America and were assembled to create color photographs. The results of this process allow us to visualize what these images must have looked like at the beginning of the twentieth century; a century ago one could project the images onto a screen, but at that time it was impossible to reproduce the images on paper. For the first time, modern digital techniques have allowed us to see how Prokudin-Gorsky must have visualized the images and have transferred them permanently onto paper – as a document of the colossal Russian Empire in color shortly before it would disappear beneath the turmoil of revolution.
TEXT: Anna-Lena Kron