In the United States, some of the earliest color photographs were made by the FSA-OWI and showed the country in the depression era and pre-war years. It’s easy to think that these might be the earliest color images in photographic history, but some 20 years before the likes of Dorethea Lange and Walker Evans began taking color images on the more accessible Kodachrome film, chemist cum photographer Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky was taking color photographs of his native Russia through his own innovative technique. The following images are just a fraction of the color pictures made by the photographer depicting the glory that was the Russian Empire.
Sergey Mikhaylovich Prokudin-Gorsky (alternatively spelled Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii or Серге́й Миха́йлович Проку́дин-Го́рский if you prefer) was notable during his time for producing the only color photograph of Leo Tolstoy through a technique he learned from Adolf Miethe, one of the earliest proponents of three-color photography. Over a century after taking that photograph, Prokudin-Gorsky is now more famous for his thousands of color images of early 20th century Russia, all of which comprised almost all of the only color images of that time.
Prokudin-Gorsky dreamed of visually recording his homeland as a teaching tool for schoolchildren, and in the first decade of the 1900s, he got his wish. The photographer began his documentation of the Russian empire in 1909, having been given unprecedented access to almost all parts of the empire (thanks to the blessings of Tsar Nicholas II). The photographer is thought to have made over 3,500 images, some 1,600 of which were purchased by the US Library of Congress (which is the source for most of the pictures you see in this post).
True color photographs were already being made around the 1850s, but the techniques employe were cumbersome or involved special chemicals. Commercially viable color photography truly began around 1935 with the introduction of Kodachrome. Prokudin-Gorsky’s 1905 technique involved taking a series of three “negatives” of the same scene, one taken through a blue filter, another with a red filter, and the last with a green filter. By themselves, each of the negatives look like nothing more than a black-and-white photograph, but when developed in conjunction with each other, all the other color values appear accurately, producing a color image decades ahead of Prokudin-Gorsky’s time.
The only drawbacks to this technique were the long exposures and the chance that his subjects would move between taking the picture under each color filter. Thus, movement in his pictures show up as streaks or blobs of colorful motion blurs.
Prokudin-Gorsky’s portraits and landscapes are invaluable not only because they were among the first color photographs of the world, they also show a Russia that would disappear into legend: within a decade of taking most of his color images, the Russian Revolution would sweep throughout the country, leading the way towards the Soviet Union and the downfall of the Russian Empire. Thus, Prokudin-Gorsky’s pictures offer viewers a glimpse of a Russia under the Rule of the Tsar.
The Russia in Prokudin-Gorsky’s pictures wasn’t just a monochromatic landscape of Tsar loyalists and revolutionary separatists, it was a colorful image of emirs and sheiks of the southern borders of Russia posing in their palaces, of Chinese immigrants working in plantations, and of Jewish children learning their lessons. This wasn’t just the romantic Russia of novels, but the real Russia of the Russian peoples.
The glory that was the Russian Empire is still alive in the many pictures of Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky. The US Library of Congress has a website on the photographer and his collection of photographs, but you’re better off browsing through the gallery at the Wikimedia Commons site as the latter is much more accessible. There’s one book on the photographer’s Russian photographs: Photographs for the Tsar: The Pioneering Color Photography of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii Commissioned by Tsar Nicholas II, but if you’re into the subject, check out The Russian Empire: A portrait in photographs as well.