Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Colorful Past of Old Russia: Prokudin-Gorskii's Photo Collection Reconstructed

Almost all photos from around the early 20th century are in black and white. However, Sergey Mikhaylovich Prokudin-Gorskii, a pioneering Russian photographer, developed an ingenious photographic technique for generating color images. His color images, reconstructed from his original glass negatives, provide an extraordinary look at early 20th-century Russia. You can find his photos as part of the Library of Congress online exhibit, The Empire That Was Russia.

Isfandiyar, Khan of the Russian protectorate  of Khorezm

The Russia of Nicholas II on the eve of World War I was a land of striking ethnic diversity. Comprising all of the republics of what later was to become the Soviet Union, as well as present-day Finland and much of Poland, Russia was home to more than 150 million people of which only about half were ethnic Russians. In his travels throughout the empire, Prokudin-Gorskii captured this diversity.

Dagestan is a Russian republic in the North Caucasus region on the Caspian Sea. Here is an image of Dagestani women around 1905:

Dagestani women

Another image shows an Armenian woman in her national costume:

Armenian woman in national costume
Daily Life
In the early 1900s Prokudin-Gorskii formulated an ambitious plan for a photographic survey of the Russian Empire which 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. One of Prokudin-Gorskii’s goals was to capture the daily life of the Russian people.

The following image shows a Russian family resting in a hay field during harvest time:

Harvest time in a Russian wheat field

Another image shows Jewish children with a teacher in Samarkand, Uzbekistan:

Jewish children with teacher in Samarkand
Another image taken in 1910 shows a family working at a pit mine in Bakalskii, which is in the Bakaly Hills of the Ural Mountains:

Family working at Bakalskii mine
Color Photographic Technique
Prokudin-Gorskii's process used a camera that took a series  of three monochrome pictures in sequence, each through a different-colored filter. Each negative contains the color value for each RGB component. In Photoshop terminology, these 3 images represent RGB channels. In fact, adventurous Photoshop users have recreated Prokudin-Gorskii's color images by combining the digitized versions of the RGB negatives as layers with specific channel values.

Monochrome negatives containing RGB values

results in

Bukhara emir 
Given the complex process of printing color images at the Three lens projection lantern time, Prokudin-Gorskii often displayed his images using a special projection lantern with three lenses. By projecting all three monochrome negatives using the correct colored light, and then overlapping the images, he was able to reconstruct the original color scene.

Library of Congress Exhibits
The Library of Congress offers a wide range of online exhibitions featuring treasures from its own collections as well as the treasures of other national libraries. Here are some of the current exhibits available online:

Redmond Library Board

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