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Time Travel: Russia A Hundred Years Ago

(The following is a post by Harold M. Leich, Russian Area Specialist, European Division.)

A 1906 portrait photograph of Prokudin-Gorskii taken in France. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944), an innovator in the field of color photography, was commissioned by Tsar Nicholas II to document the vast Russian Empire between the years 1909 and 1915.

The Library of Congress’ Prokudin-Gorskii Collection of color photographs featuring the people, buildings, and landscapes of tsarist Russia offers an unparalleled view into Russia’s past. It also covers areas that are now in independent countries such as Ukraine and Uzbekistan. Among these photographs are surveys of eleven regions where Prokudin-Gorskii traveled, in some cases using a specially equipped Ministry of Transportation railroad car.

A chemist by training, Prokudin-Gorskii was familiar with the techniques of the foremost European photographers of the time. His own inventions included a special camera, with which he photographed the same scene three times in rapid, split-second sequence on a 3-inch by 9-inch glass plate. By exposing the image sequentially through a red, green, and blue filter, he was able to create color images. He then presented these images in color-slide lectures using a light-projection system involving the same three filters.

Image before and after digitization. Prokudin-Gorskii on the right. Photo taken in Murmansk, 1915. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Image before and after digitization. Prokudin-Gorskii on the right. Photo taken in Murmansk, 1915. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

A year after the 1917 Russian Revolution, Prokudin-Gorskii left the country, traveling first to Norway and England before settling in France, where he died in 1944. Fortunately, he had been able to take his slides with him. About 1,900 of these glass negatives, as well as other photographs he had taken, were acquired from his heirs by the Library of Congress in 1948.  The entire collection was digitized in 1999-2000 and may be viewed on the Library of Congress website, with various options for searching and browsing the images. In 2001 the Library of Congress displayed a selection of color prints made from the glass negatives at an exhibition, “The Empire That Was Russia: The Prokudin-Gorskii Photographic Record Recreated.” The historically important, enhanced pictures would not have been possible without the laboriously obtained originals.

Image before and after digitization. Bukhara bureaucrat, Bukhara. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Image before and after digitization. Bukhara bureaucrat, Bukhara. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Enthusiasts still study the life and work of this dedicated photographer whose images make the past come to life. For instance, Vasily Driuchin, founder and director of the Prokudin-Gorskii Museum in Moscow visited the Library of Congress in February 2017 to use early-20th-century photographic journals unavailable in Russia.

Image before and after digitization. Three young women offer berries to visitors to their “izba,” a traditional wooden house, in a rural area along the Sheksna River, near the town of Kirillov, 1909. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Image before and after digitization. Three young women offer berries to visitors to their “izba,” a traditional wooden house, in a rural area along the Sheksna River, near the town of Kirillov, 1909. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Driuchin is also one of the founders of an important website, “The Legacy of S.M. Prokudin-Gorsky,” and a blog that discusses all aspects of the photographer’s life and work. The availability of these magnificent color photographs on the Library’s website has generated great interest in Russia, as people there discover full-color images of their country from more than one hundred years ago.

Vasily Driuchin examining a Russian periodical published in Paris in the 1930s with the Library’s Russian Specialist, Harold Leich.

Vasily Driuchin, with European Division Chief, Grant Harris, holding a copy of Prokudin-Gorskii’s photograph of the Solovetsky Monastery on the White Sea.

2 Comments

  1. Irene Steckler
    May 3, 2017 at 10:10 am

    Very happy to see this on-line. European Division Russian Area Specialist Harry Leich has presented an excellent introduction to this absolute treasure of the Library of Congress’s Russian collections. Congratulations, Harry, keep up the great job of researching, organizing, & publishing material of inestimable value to scholars of Russia & photography all over the world!

  2. Georgette Dorn
    May 3, 2017 at 12:38 pm

    Thus is a most interesting and informative blog not only about the Russia of 100 years, which is fascinating but it also calls attention to a pioneer photographer who used color so early.

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