December 7 2006

Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii was one of those twentieth-century people who recorded the last of something.

He was a chemist. He was born in Vladimir oblast, east of Moscow, in 1863. He studied in St Petersburg, Berlin and Paris.

Around 1905 he decided to photograph the Russian Empire in colour.

He executed most of his vast project between 1907 and 1912, and in 1915. Tsar Nicholas II gave him permits that granted him access to restricted areas and protection from bureaucrats, and arranged a special darkroom in a railway carriage.

In 1918 he fled to Norway, and then England. He settled in France and died in Paris in 1944.

His pictures are touching, and are impressive technically even by modern standards.

His technique was to take a series of photographs in rapid succession using different colour filters, and superimpose them. So his subjects could not move, and there was a halo effect if they did, or if the superimpositions were not exact. But these images are not colourised. The technique is so simple that it seems incredible that it was so seldom used: was it ever used by others? Perhaps preserving, rather than making, the image was the main difficulty.

In 1948 the US Library of Congress purchased the glass plates on which his images were recorded, and his prints and albums, from his sons. There are 2,607 distinct images, ie distinct subjects. Why are there not more non-Russian pictures (there are some)? You can see his work online here.


The Church of the Nativity of the Virgin in the Trinity-Ipat’ev Monastery (founded c 1330) in Kostroma, north east of Moscow on the Volga. Constructed in the sixteenth century. Demolished in the early Soviet period, I assume under Stalin.


Jewish children in Samarkand (a town I remember fondly), now in Uzbekistan. Samarkand was incorporated into the Russian Empire in the middle of the nineteenth century, and its population includes Tajiks, Persians, Uzbeks, Arabs, Jews, and Russians.


A young Turkmen camel driver. His camel is probably carrying grain or cotton.


Visitors at the spa of Ekaterinin in the Caucasus, in Georgia


Tbilisi (more pleasant memories) in Georgia


Russian settlers on the Mugan steppe in Azerbaijan, close to Persia. They look almost American.


The Emir of Bukhara (Uzbekistan), Alim Khan (1880-1944), a vassal of Russia. He fled to Afghanistan in 1920, and died in Kabul – in the same year as the man who photographed him, but a different exile.


Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, perhaps by the Karolitskhali River in the Caucasus Mountains near the Black Sea port of Batumi

4 Responses to “Prokudin-Gorskii”

  1. The main argument I’ve heard for this method not being more extensively used is cost; apparently the Lumiere method and early Kodak processes were cheaper. I have found one example, a Dutch photographer named Bernard Eilers, who used an almost identical process (albeit thirty years later).

  2. […] Prokudin-Gorskii 2 February 8th, 2007 See first post. […]

  3. […] April 29, 2008 Prokudin-Gorskii Prokudin-Gorskii […]

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