The Russian Empire in Living Color

Continuing on the theme of obscure, internet, ephemera, I present to you a collection of color photographs from the Library of Congress. These photographs have an un-earthly, ethereal quality to them that I cannot describe. The subjects seem to glow, or radiate light. The appearance of a world caught between the medieval and the industrial revolution, is amazing enough. To see that world in such vivid color is astounding. The pictures possess a dreamlike quality that makes them seem at once familiar, and entirely foreign to our eyes.

These photographs were taken between 1909 and 1915 in pre-Soviet Russia. They are the work of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, a Russian photographer who developed a unique process for creating color photographs. The Prokudin-Gorskii process was an ingenious photographic technique that captured images in black and white on glass plate negatives, using red, green and blue filters. A single, narrow glass plate about 3 inches wide by 9 inches long was placed vertically into the camera by Prokudin-Gorskii. He then photographed the same scene three times in a fairly rapid sequence using a red filter, a green filter and a blue filter. The images were then presented in color in slide lectures using a light-projection system involving the same three filters.

In the early 1900s Prokudin-Gorskii presented an ambitious plan for a photographic survey of the Russian Empire to Tsar Nicholas II. His plan was to use the emerging technological advancements that had been made in color photography to systematically document the Russian Empire. Through such an ambitious project, his ultimate goal was to educate the schoolchildren of Russia with his “optical color projections” of the vast and diverse history, culture, and modernization of the empire. Winning the support of the Tsar, he was provided with a specially equipped railroad car darkroom, and two permits that granted him access to restricted areas and cooperation from the empire’s bureaucracy. Between 1909-1912, and again in 1915, he traveled through eleven different regions of the Russian Empire, recording daily life among the Empire’s diverse ethnic groups, Medieval Orthodox Monasteries, and the railroads and factories of an emerging Industrial society.

Prokudin-Gorski would leave Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution and eventually settled in Paris. His work remained with his family until the U.S. Government purchased his slides from his heirs in 1948. The Library of Congress recently undertook a program to digitize these slides and present them in an online exhibition. All of the following photographs are copyright the Library of Congress, and Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. I hope you find them as fascinating as I do. For more info visit the Library of Congress exhibit here:

This photographic collection preserves a past that no person alive today can recall witnessing with their own eyes. They are snapshots of a colonial Empire stretching from the wild edges of Eastern Europe all the way to the Pacific and the borderlands of China and Mongolia. They are a reminder of the astounding size, and diversity of the Russian, and Soviet Empires, and how pre-modern they truly were at the beginning of the 20th Century.

This amazing monastery looks like an Alien Spacecraft landed in the countryside

Who's afraid of the big bad wolf?

The Emir of Bukhara (present day Kyrgyzstan)

This one gives me goosebumps, and I'm not sure why

If these factories look jarring and out of place to our eyes, imagine how they appeared to the Russian peasants that saw them for the first time

How I would love to know the life stories of these three girls

The shining city on the hill from Revelations

Another haunting photo from the Brothers Grimm

The ferryman at the River Styx

This could have been taken in my backyard, and may be the the most achingly beautiful portrait ever taken of the untamed, wild beauty of lilacs

3 thoughts on “The Russian Empire in Living Color

  1. Those photos are amazing aren’t they? Those girls – all probably gone now. Haunting. Those silver roofs – so stunning. I could stare at those photos for hours.

    Did I give you the link for the WWI color photos? If not you’ve got to check them out.

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