Unlocking the Color: Photographs by Sergei M. Prokudin-Gorskii, 1909 to 1915

The following interview with photographer Walt Frankhauser is a guest post by Helena Zinkham, Chief of the Prints & Photographs Division.

Back in 1948, the Library of Congress acquired close to 2,000 rare glass-plate negatives created by the Russian photographer Sergei M. Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944). We knew that what appeared to be black-and-white images could be “rendered” in color, because Prokudin-Gorskii captured each scene through blue, green, and red filters. But the available techniques for recovering the color were so costly that, after fifty years, special projects for books and exhibits had produced only a small number of color images available for viewing.

The arrival of digitizing technology inspired the Library’s scan center director, Lynn Brooks, to try again and to go much further! This innovative challenge intrigued Walt Frankhauser, a professional photographer adept at using Photoshop. Walt’s initial group of 122 color renderings went online in 2001. His continued dedication has now resulted in a generous gift of 1,258 more digital color images.

Emir of Bukhara, Bukhara. 1911. Photo by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, 1911. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/prok.01886

Emir of Bukhara. Bukhara. Photo by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, 1911. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsc.03959 (Image at left shows original glass plate negative, while image at right shows color rendering.)

Helena: How did you become involved with the Prokudin-Gorskii (PG) Collection?

Walt: In 1999, I was asked by the Library to find a way of digitally extracting a color image from one of PG’s plates. After about 24 hours of non-stop activity, a color image was produced with Photoshop. Thus was born a methodology called digichromatography.

After the initial success, it was easy to become addicted to the process. A wide variety of subjects are in the collection: artistic, architectural, industrial, people and animals, nature, and religious, which PG recorded from his travels over a period of about ten years. PG’s plates were made using an additive (RGB) color method first discovered by James Clerk Maxwell in the 19th century. At the time we began this project, Photoshop was the only platform that offered a suite of tools needed to process the plates. Given the historical value of the plates, one could make a unique contribution to the body of knowledge from images created over a century ago, when developed in color.

Miraculous icon of Mother of God-Odigitria in the Church of the Assumption of the Virgin. [Smolensk]. Photo by Serge Mikha lovich Prokudin-Gorski, 1912. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsc.03982

Miraculous icon of Mother of God-Odigitria in the Church of the Assumption of the Virgin. [Smolensk]. Photo by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, 1912. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsc.03982

Helena: What techniques did you use to “render” the color?

Walt: From the beginning, registration of the three layers was by far the biggest challenge, for a multitude of reasons. At first, this step was accomplished manually, consuming hours of trial and error. Later versions of Photoshop began offering an algorithm that could automatically align the three images on a glass plate. The result was a sharper color image, and the time required to process an image decreased by 40-50%. I was happy!

After registration, each layer was digitally colored to correspond with the order of PG’s exposures. It remained to “develop” these colors to achieve the proper contrast and color balance. The last step, most time-consuming of all, was image retouching.

Helena: How has your technique changed over the years?

Walt: Digichromatography has been an evolving methodology since its inception. One of the things learned was that many images were capable of significantly higher contrast and color saturation. This was not true globally, and I began selecting various areas of the image which were amenable to improvement. In many cases the result was a more vibrant image with enhanced detail.

<em>Vetluga settlement. Tesma River. Near Zlatoust. </em>1910. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppem.02280

Vetluga settlement. Tesma River. Near Zlatoust. Photo by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, 1910. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppem.02280

Helena: What challenges did you have to overcome?

Walt: Please do not assume that the production of color images was only mechanical. Far from it! All of the plates suffered from one or more of the following defects: low contrast (which hindered registration), very dark areas (hindering the extraction of detail), color casts (a monochrome image), cracks in the plate (broken glass), scratches (from handling over many years), and spotting (from mold). In some cases, there was also emulsion reticulation. Unfortunately, some images simply could not be processed.

View of the monastery from Svetlitsa Island, Saint Nil Stolbenskii Monastery, Lake Seliger. Photo by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, 1910. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsc.03973

Helena: Which images became your favorites?

Walt: The task of identifying my favorites among 1,380 images was daunting. Nonetheless, I put together some criteria which helped me in the selection. These are: superior color rendering, people as subjects, historical interest, visually pleasing (e.g., architecture, symmetry), and photographed near sunrise or sunset.

The Library’s PG project has been the most professionally satisfying of my career. The Library people, active or retired, with whom I have worked over more than twenty years were to a person supportive, knowledgeable and courteous, another dividend from the work.

Learn More:

  • Enjoy all of Walt Frankhauser’s color images or the whole Prokudin-Gorskii collection at the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Online Catalog.
  • Explore then & now views, new photo identifications, and helpful maps at the website Legacy of S. M. Prokudin-Gorsky. (Vasiliy V. Dryuchin, project leader, 2008-present)
  • Review a variety of color production methods, including Walt Frankhauser’s detailed description of digichromatography
  • Read about the collection and photographer in: Adamson, Jeremy, and Helena Zinkham. “The Prokudin-Gorskii Legacy: Color Photographs of the Russian Empire, 1905-1915.” Comma 3-4 (2002): 107-144.

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