S M Prokudin-Gorsky



Self portrait in suit and hat, seated on a rock beside the River Karolitskhali, 1910. Photograph/S M Prokudin-Gorsky

Self portrait in suit and hat, seated on a rock beside the River Karolitskhali, 1910. Photograph/S M Prokudin-Gorsky

S M Prokudin-Gorsky

S M Prokudin-Gorsky

Ambarin Afsar sifts through the remarkable life and colour photos of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorsky, (1863-1944) , a man decades ahead of his time.

The year was 1909 and the place, Tsarkoe Selo (Tsar’s Village) in Russia, where the imperial family resided. In the splendid hall of the Catherine Palace, filled with Lords and Ladies in Waiting, a chemist and photographer called Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorsky projected photos of sunsets, snowy landscapes, peasant children, fall scenes and so on for Tsar Nicholas II, the Tsarina and their children. These were no ordinary photographs. They were colour photos, made a hundred years ago, and just as vivid as any modern process. “After the very first picture, when I heard the approving whisper of the Tsar, I was already assured of my success, since I had chosen a program arranged in a series, each picture in turn, having increasing effectiveness,” Gorsky wrote in his notes. By the second part of his show, “Each picture elicited not only whispers of approval but even loud exclamations.”

“My goal is to leave an exact document for the future, and thus, the application of photographing in colour to the preservation of Russia’s ancient monuments.”

A Historic Documentation of Russia Begins

No doubt, Tsar Nicholas II was beyond amazed. And, when Gorsky told him that he wanted to make a documental record of “true Russia and her ancient monuments, and in the same way, also the beauties of the diverse nature of our great Motherland,” he approved of the plan with great enthusiasm. Gorsky was given a Pullman railroad car that would function as his darkroom, a fully manned steamship capable of travelling shallow waters, a motorboat and a Ford motorcar equipped for rough roads. These would help him document various areas such as the waterways and the mountain ridge of the Urals. With official documents that asked local bureacracy to assist him, Gorsky set out on an expedition, which would take up his energy and wealth for the longest time.

“Gorsky delights with his colour projections, thereby surpassing his teacher Miethe as a chemist in his own right.” —Publications of Moscow and Petersburg.

Making Colour Photos a 100 Years Ago

Let us leave Gorsky to his expeditions for a while, and instead, look at how this man encountered and subsequently made vivid colour photos, nearly two decades before the invention of colour film. Gorsky used something called the three-colour process, which had been around since 1858. It involved the making of three separate B&W negatives through red, green and blue colour filters, which are the components of white light. A contact triple B&W negative was printed on a glass plate and then projected through a special triple projector using three filters. This is how the overlapping image could be viewed in full colour. Gorsky preferred this method because he could make as many copies as he wanted from the negatives and triple positives for producing slides. These slides helped prepare enlargements on metal plates, from which prints could be made.

“Photography in natural colour is my specialty.”

A Young Chemist Meets Colour Photography

A chemist who completed his education in Paris and Berlin, Gorsky apprenticed in photochemical laboratories. In 1890, he came across the German Professor Adolf Miethe, who was to be his mentor in colour photography. Miethe was also the man who improved the sensitivity of the emulsion to red light and made a triple-colour camera that used a negative glass plate. Gorsky later used the camera for his expeditions.

“Photography is an art of a transactional nature.”

A Ceaseless Experimentation

Despite the fact that his mentor had already made improvements to the three-colour process, Gorsky continued to perfect his own technique. In 1905, he discovered a new colour substance that significantly surpassed the colour sensitising agents first used by Miethe in 1902. Gorsky’s compound produced a silver bromide plate equally sensitive to all parts of the colour spectrum. This meant that the exposure time decreased significantly.

Molding of an artistic casting (Kasli Iron Works), 1910 . Photograph/S M Prokudin-Gorsky

Molding of an artistic casting (Kasli Iron Works), 1910 . Photograph/S M Prokudin-Gorsky

Challenges on Field

When we return to the solitary figure sitting on a hilltop and surveying the beautiful landscape before him, we realise that Gorsky must have spent a considerable amount of time on field in order to come away with a large collection of images. According to the memoirs of the photographer, “We had to take photos under the most varied and difficult conditions. In the evening, we developed the photos in the car’s laboratory and sometimes the work dragged on until late at night. Then, right there, on the road, copies were made from the negatives and put in albums.”

“It is possible to forget that you are seeing a ‘photograph’— you are seeing the person himself, you feel him. In this, portrait photography can only be compared with portrait painting.”

Money Runs Dry

Gorsky produced all these photos using his own resources, since the government limited itself to assistance with transportation. He had initially planned to take 10,000 photographs of the splendours of Russia, from Finland to the Pacific Ocean, over the span of 10 years. However, the cost of special equipment, chemicals, plates, paper and of paying assistants meant that each photo costed 10 rubles. So, 1000 photos made each year would cost 10,000 rubles. Money quickly melted away and the collection grew. “The Tsar did not say anything and I did not ask for anything,” wrote Gorsky of the situation. And thus, Gorsky ended up covering only 11 regions Molding of an artistic casting (Kasli Iron Works), 1910 . in 3500 negatives. Eventually, he petitioned the government to purchase all that he had already made, so that he could fund himself. However, that did not happen. So, in order to continue making photos and to perfect his new discovery, a colour movie camera, he found financial partners.

A group of women in Dagestan, 1910. Photograph/S M Prokudin-Gorsky

A group of women in Dagestan, 1910. Photograph/S M Prokudin-Gorsky

Time Encroaches Over All Else

In 1914, the beginning of World War I forced him to abandon photography and work on military matters like censorship of cinematographic film from abroad, study of photography from airplanes and so on. Finally, Gorsky left Russia in 1918, settling in France and starting a studio. He passed away in 1944, aged 81 years. By then, the Tsar and his family had been executed during the Russian Revolution and communist rule had been established. Gorsky’s glorious Russian Empire was now a lost world. The surviving boxes of photo albums and fragile glass plates were finally stored in the basement of a Parisian apartment building to save them from damage. Eventually, the United States Library of Congress purchased the material from Gorsky’s heirs in 1948 for USD 3500–5000 when a researcher inquired about their whereabouts.

Tags: Ambarin Afsar, Better Pictures, chemist turned photographer, Great Masters, july 2012, Russian photographer, Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorsky, Tsar Nicholas II