Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin’s Color Photographs of Pre-Revolution Russia

Nov 25, 2017 1 comments

Sergey Mikhaylovich Prokudin-Gorsky was a Russian chemist and photographer, best known for his pioneering work in color photography during the early 20th century. His priceless color photographs documenting the waning days of the Russian Empire before the First World War and the Russian Revolution are today some of the most prized possession of the United States Library of Congress.

In the beginning of the 20th century, color photography was still in its infancy. It was the German photochemist Adolf Miethe, with whom Prokudin-Gorsky studied briefly the techniques, who greatly improved the three-color principle of color photography. Using a specialized camera developed by Adolf Miethe, Prokudin-Gorsky took three black and white images in quick succession, using red, green and blue filters, which were later recombined and projected with filtered lanterns to show near true color images. Because exposure time was often high and the three color-filtered photographs were not taken at the same time, subjects that did not hold steady during the entire operation exhibited colored fringes around its edges in the resulting color image. Such fringes are characteristics of many Prokudin-Gorsky's photographs.


The Emir of Bukhara, Alim Khan (1880-1944), poses for his portrait, taken in 1911 shortly after his accession. As ruler of an autonomous city-state in Islamic Central Asia, the Emir presided over the internal affairs of his emirate as absolute monarch, although since the mid-1800s Bukhara had been a vassal state of the Russian Empire. With the establishment of Soviet power in Bukhara in 1920, the Emir fled to Afghanistan where he died in 1944.

Around 1905, Prokudin-Gorsky envisioned and formulated a plan to use the emerging technological advances in color photography to document the Russian Empire systematically. Tsar Nicholas II granted him permits that allowed him to travel unmolested across restricted areas and instructed the empire's bureaucracy to cooperate with the photographer. For six years from 1909 through 1915 Prokudin-Gorsky travelled across the length and breadth of the vast country in a specially equipped railroad-car darkroom capturing vivid portraits of a lost world. His subjects ranged from the medieval churches and monasteries, to the railroads and factories of an emerging industrial power, to the daily life and work of Russia's diverse population. According to one estimate, Prokudin-Gorsky took over 10,000 photographs during these years.

After the Russian Revolution, Prokudin-Gorsky left Russia in 1918 and eventually settled in Paris. Prokudin-Gorsky couldn’t take all of his photographs with him when he left Russia. Some sources claim he only had about 3,500 negatives with him before leaving the country, of which nearly half were confiscated by Russian authorities for containing material they deemed strategically sensitive for war-time Russia. Some of Prokudin-Gorsky's negatives were given away, and some he hid on his departure. The remaining negatives—about 1,900 of them—and about 700 more album prints were purchased by the United States Library of Congress in 1948, four years after the death of Prokudin-Gorsky.


An Armenian woman from Artvin in national costume.


A merchant at the Samarkand market displays colorful silk, cotton, and wool fabrics as well as a few traditional carpets. A framed page of the Koran hangs at the top of the stall


Dressed in traditional Central Asian attire, a vendor of locally grown melons poses at his stand in the marketplace of Samarkand in present-day Uzbekistan.


Prokudin-Gorskii and others ride the Murmansk Railroad in a handcar along the shores of Lake Onega near Petrozavodsk.


Young Russian peasant women offer berries to visitors to their izba, a traditional wooden house, in a rural area along the Sheksna River near the small town of Kirillov.


Wooden mills using wind-power to grind wheat and rye are photographed in the middle of summer on the vast Siberian plain in rural Ialutorovsk county in Western Siberia.


A young Kazakh family in colorful traditional dress moving across the Golodnaia (or “Hungry”) steppe in present-day Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Many Central Asiatic peoples, for example the Kirghiz, Kazakhs, and Uzbeks, lived nomadic lives on the steppes, valleys, and deserts, migrating seasonally from one place to another as opportunities for obtaining food, water, and shelter changed.


Wearing traditional dress and headgear, a Turkmen camel driver poses with his camel, laden with what is most likely grain or cotton. Camel caravans remained the most common means of transporting food, raw materials, and manufactured goods in Central Asia well into the railroad era.


Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii poses near a mountain stream, thought to be the Karolitskhali River in the Caucasus Mountains near the seaport of Batumi on the eastern coast of the Black Sea.


This photo shows the interior of a tea packaging and weighing operation located at the Chakva tea farm and processing plant just north of Batumi, close to the Black Sea coast in what is now the Republic of Georgia. The Chakva farm and plant was one of the major suppliers of tea to all parts of the Russian Empire.


In this portrait, Prokudin-Gorksii captures the traditional dress, jewelry, and hairstyle of an Uzbek woman standing on a richly decorated carpet at the entrance to a yurt, a portable tent used for housing by the nomadic peoples of Central Asia.


Five inmates stare out from a zindan, a traditional Central Asian prison--in essence a pit in the earth with a low structure built on top. The guard, with Russian rifle and bayonet, is attired in Russian-style uniform and boots.


A small nineteenth-century wooden chapel, was on the north side of the White Lake in north central European Russia.


In the early years of the First World War, Prokudin-Gorskii photographed a group of prisoners of war from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The men are probably Poles, Ukrainians, and members of other Slavic nationalities, imprisoned at an unidentified location in the far north of European Russia near the White Sea. This image escaped being confiscated by border guards probably because what is being represented is not immediately obvious.


A Bashkir switch operator poses by the mainline of the railroad, near the town of Ust' Katav on the Yuryuzan River between Ufa and Cheliabinsk in the Ural Mountain region of European Russia.


The Ural Mountain region is noted for the richness of its iron deposits and ores. The Bakaly hills, in the area outside the city of Ekaterinburg, provide the locale for a small-scale family mining operation.


Workers, identified by Prokudin-Gorskii as Greeks, pose while harvesting tea from plants spreading over rolling hills near Chakva, on the east coast of the Black Sea.


An ethnic Russian settler family in the Mugan Steppe region, south of the Caucasus Mountains and west of the Caspian Sea. Settlement of Russians in non-European parts of the empire, and particularly in border regions, was encouraged by official government policy and accounts for much of the Russian migration to Siberia, the Far East, and the Caucasus regions.


A Sunni Muslim man of undetermined nationality wearing traditional dress and headgear, with a sheathed dagger at his side.


A couple in traditional dress poses for a portrait in the mountainous interior region of Gunib on the north slope of the Caucasus Mountains in what is today the Dagestan Republic of the Russian Federation


A group of Jewish boys, in traditional dress, studying with their teacher in Samarkand.


Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii and members of his photographic team are shown here at their overnight campground. The site is near the Chusovaia River, on the western side of the Ural Mountains which divide Europe from Asia.


Woman in formal dress, posed, standing near gate.


Kush-Beggi, Minister of Interior, Bukhara, Uzbekistan, wearing an imported silk-brocade robe, gilt-and-enameled saber, and medals.


General view of the wharf at Mezhevaya Utka, 1912.


A water-carrier in Samarkand (present-day Uzbekistan), ca. 1910.


  1. This bunch of photos is truly impressive! When you consider what was involved in taking them, and saving them, they are totally awesome! Thank you so much for these!


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