Thursday, August 26, 2010

Discovering Prokudin-Gorskii's Lost Empire

I'd never heard of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii until I encountered his photographs recently on The Big Picture, which is one of my favorite photo sites. (It really does have big pictures.) It goes to show that 1) my photo education has huge gaps to fill, and 2) surprises are always welcome in life. Now this photographer, who documented the vast Russian Empire between 1909 and 1912 ( and later in 1915), has jumped up toward the the top of my interest list.

When Prokudin-Gorskii convinced Tsar Nicholas II to sponsor a photographic survey of the Russian Empire, he (like the Tsar) probably assumed he was documenting a Great Power at its peak. From a modern perspective, the photographs paint  a portrait of a lost world. The empire was already crumbling; the old regime would fall completely in 1917, and the Tsar and his family would die at the hands of the Bolsheviks in 1918.

The intrepid photographer travelled in a special railway car and documented 11 regions of the empire, according to this source. His work might be compared to the photographic surveys of the American west by William Henry Jackson, or the ethnographic studies of native Americans by Edward Curtis, who worked in roughly the same era. Prokudin-Gorskii, however, produced color images, ingeniously. He shot in black and white, and made three exposures of each image in rapid succession, each one with a red, green, or blue filter. The three different exposures would then be sandwiched together and projected with filtered lanterns to create his wondrous color images.  This site has a nice collection of his images, and this one tells of their restoration. If anyone could recommend other good sources of information for me to look into, that would be just great.

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