(This guest post is by Barbara L. Dash, Rare Materials Section, U.S./Anglo Division)
A descendant of Russian nobility, Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944) established himself in the early 20th century as a pioneer in the development of color photography. It was his achievements and ingenuity in this field that attracted the support of the tsar, Nicholas II, for Prokudin-Gorskii’s proposed photographic survey of the vast Russian Empire. To aid the photographer’s journeys, the tsar provided a train, with a compartment outfitted for processing the photographs, a steamboat with a full crew, a motor boat, and a Ford Model-T equipped for rough mountain roads. During what would turn out to be the last years of the old Russian Empire, Prokudin-Gorskii produced what he described as natural and artistic photographs of the varied landscapes, architecture, and people of a world soon to be transformed by revolution and war.
My own acquaintance with Prokudin-Gorskii’s work began years ago, when my cousin Jack, himself an avid photographer, surprised me with the gift of a new book, “Photographs for the Tsar: the pioneering color photography of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii commissioned by Tsar Nicholas II” edited with an introduction by Robert H. Allshouse. A number of years later, the Librarian of Congress put out a call among Library staff for anyone having a copy of Allshouse’s book, which was by then out of print. The Librarian wished to give the book to a Russian colleague as part of a cultural mission. I thought long and hard about relinquishing my copy – this was before there was an Internet market where I might have found a replacement – but in the end gave it up in the interest of international friendship.
Prokudin-Gorskii’s work has gained new renown since 1999-2000, when the Library of Congress digitized thousands of his photographs, making them available to new audiences. Russians in particular are memorializing the photographer and his work in print and film, in museums and libraries, and in scholarly blogs, in which they are providing new insights and helping to identify the subjects of his photographs. In addition, Prokudin-Gorskii’s architectural photographs have been given new life in the online articles and print publications of historian and photographer William C. Brumfield.
Perhaps less well-known among Prokudin-Gorskii’s works are some of the publications of the studio that he founded in 1901 in a multi-story building at 22 Bol’shaia Podiacheskaia Ulitsa (Greater Scriveners Street) in Saint Petersburg. He and his family lived in that same building for ten years, and Prokudin-Gorskii described the studio as his experimental laboratory. There he took commissions for photographic work and refined his techniques. From 1906 through 1909, the studio was the editorial office of the journal “Фотографъ-любитель” (Amateur photographer), which featured articles on photography as well as Prokudin-Gorskii’s own editorials and color photographs.
The studio gave him the opportunity also to print postcards of his color images, which otherwise were published only in journals or projected in his public presentations as slides. Among the most popular of these images was the now iconic full-length portrait that he made of Leo Tolstoy in 1908, two years before the great author’s death.
Having worked with Russian materials at the Library of Congress for decades, I had never noticed an imprint of Prokudin-Gorskii’s studio until just before the pandemic, when a large, decorative edition of Nikolai Gogol’s short stories arrived at my desk. “Вечера на хуторѣ близъ Диканьки. Миргородъ” (Evenings near the village of Dikanka. Mirgorod) was issued in 1911 by Saint Petersburg publisher A.F. Devrien. Mirgorod is the Russian spelling for the Ukrainian district of Myrhorod, where Gogol was born.
These stories, first published as two separate collections in 1831-32 and 1835, were among Gogol’s early successes. The stories drew on the folk tales of Gogol’s Ukrainian heritage, and the full-page illustrations, by S.M. Dudin (1863-1929) and N.I. Tkachenko (1866-1913), were awash with fantasy.
Seeking more information about the illustrations, I looked again at the preliminary information in the book. On the back of the title page were a few lines of text printed under a small imperial Russian double-headed eagle. The first line was the statement of the printer of the book’s text: A. Benke Typography in St. Petersburg. The second statement announced: “Plates made by the artistic photomechanical studio of S.M. Prokudin-Gorskii in St. Petersburg, 1911.”
I had intended to end my article here, with the “reveal” of Prokudin-Gorskii’s studio. But two other details attracted my attention. One was a small shelf label, only 2 cm. wide, inside the book’s front cover, and the other the Library of Congress accession number penciled on the verso of the title page, above the printers’ statements. With help from the historian in the Library’s Manuscript Division, I was able to trace the accession number (542230, dated June 17, 1938) to a purchase from New York bookseller Israel Perlstein, from whom the Library of Congress acquired many volumes for what is now the Russian Imperial Collection.
Still working from home because of the pandemic, I am unable for now to do more research in Library of Congress archives on the book’s provenance or to compare the shelf label to any in the Russian Imperial Collection. If anyone has access to Israel Perlstein’s catalogs, catalogs of Nicholas II’s library or other early 20th-century libraries of Russian nobility, or can identify the shelf label, that would be a great contribution. If this volume indeed belonged to the tsar or someone in his family, that information would complete the circle.
Read more about it:
Russian sources give the name of Prokudin-Gorskii’s studio as the “Фотоцинкографическая и фототехническая мастерская” (Photozincographic and Phototechnical Studio) of S.M. Prokudin-Gorskii. A zincograph is a print similar to a lithograph, but produced by means of a photograph taken of the original artwork and then chemically transferred to a zinc plate. It seems likely that the prints in the 1911 edition of Gogol’s stories are zincographs, although Prokudin-Gorskii’s imprint statement in the book does not use that term.
Many details given here, especially about Prokudin-Gorskii’s studio, are borrowed from “Сергей Михайлович Прокудин-Горский = Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorsky,” copyright 2003, by Svetlana Garanina, to whom I am most grateful. Garanina’s works are cited in the Library of Congress catalog under the heading Garanina, S. P. (Svetlana Petrovna).
Nikolai Gogol (1809-53) has been described as “19th-century Russia’s greatest comic writer” and “one of the supreme masters of Russian prose.” Gogol is perhaps best known in the West for his novel “Dead Souls,” his stage comedy “The Inspector General,” and influential stories like “The Overcoat” and “The Nose.” See Victor Terras, ed. “Handbook of Russian literature.” New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985.
At the Library of Congress: Introduction to the collection of Prokudin-Gorskii materials. It would be interesting to look for some of Prokudin-Gorskii’s postcards in the Library of Congress’ Prints & Photographs Division among the more than 25,000 items in the Winokur-Munblit Collection of Russian Postcards. Prokudin-Gorskii’s work has been identified among the postcards in another Prints & Photographs collection, the “Tsine-Louine Siberia Postcards” Series. See the illustrated blogpost, “A Cup of Tea with Trans-Siberian Railway Postcards” published by the Library of Congress European Division on that collection, including at the end instructions on how to search the series. On the international reaction to the Library of Congress’ digitization of its Prokudin-Gorskii photographs, and for some Russian sources: Harry M. Leich. “Russia in Color Photographs, 1905-1914.”
An illustrated article published in Russian, by “Cameralabs,” about the Library of Congress’s digital Prokudin-Gorskii collection, offers color images.
Another Russian article, this one published by TASS, displays Prokudin-Gorskii photographs from the Library of Congress collection remastered in color.
Robert H. Allshouse, ed. and introduction. “Photographs for the Tsar: the pioneering color photography of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii commissioned by Tsar Nicholas II.” New York: Dial Press, 1980.
William C. Brumfield has published widely both in print and online on Prokudin-Gorskii’s legacy. Professor Brumfield was curator of the Library of Congress’s first exhibition of Prokudin-Gorskii photographs, from November 1986 to May 1987. Many of his works may be found in the Library’s online catalog, including “Journeys through the Russian Empire: the photographic legacy of Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky,” 2020.
For questions, contact Library of Congress reference staff through Ask a Librarian.
An excellent article explaining these compelling prints! I’m not an expert in this field, but this post by Ms Dash gives a clear introduction to Prokudin-Gorskii’s work. The choice of prints shows the range of his work: “The Bashkir Switchman” looks as if it might have been photographed just a few years ago instead of in 1910. The page 66 print from “A May night, or the drowned maiden” is positively spooky. Thank you for sharing Ms Dash’s work on this subject.
This is an exciting and most informative article that merges several subjects – photographic heritage of Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii, the Russian Imperial collection, and, to an extent, children literature.
The digitized images of Prokudin-Gorskii’s travels around Russia are probably the most popular items with patrons of the Library who are interested in Russian history and culture. The author found the way to go beyond a traditional presentation of the collection and explore the link between the technological advances of the early day’s photography and the printing industry. The information in the article is organized in such a way that the connections between people, events, and times become obvious and significant.
On the provenance of “Mirgorod”– the guess that the item indeed may have belonged to the Imperial family is well substantiated because it is a known fact that Gogol was one of the family’s favorite authors. Also, the St. Petersburg-based publishing house А. Ф. Девриена (Alfred F. Devrient) was known for quality children books and books on education. It would be interesting to check other children’s books in the Imperial Collection with proven provenance and compare the selection pattern of publishers and similarities in markings, such as shelf labels etc., to determine the provenance of this gorgeous item.