Russia Before the Revolution: A Voyage Along the Silk Road in Colour

Sergey Mikhaylovich Prokudin-Gorsky (1863 – 1944) was a Russian chemist and photographer. He is best known for his pioneering work in colour photography, in particular, his colour portrait of Leo Tolstoy. It was this fame that, in 1909, brought him to the attention of Tsar Nicholas II who would provide funding and the authority for Prokudin-Gorsky to document what was early 20th century Russia and which would later be recognised as his most important work.

Using the emerging technological advances that had been made in colour photography, Prokudin-Gorsky set out to document the Russian Empire covering much of its expanse, his ultimate goal to showcase Russia’s vast and diverse history, culture and modernization and to help further unify the various cultures of people through education of each other.

Using a specially adapted railroad car as a darkroom, provided by Tsar Nicholas II and in possession of two permits that granted him access to restricted areas and cooperation from the Empire’s bureaucracy, Prokudin-Gorsky traversed the length and breadth of the Russian Empire between 1909 to 1915 using his three-image colour photography to record more than 10,000 full-colour photographs . While some of his negatives were lost, the majority ended up in the U.S. Library of Congress after his death. Starting in 2000, the negatives were digitised and the colour triples for each subject digitally combined to produce hundreds of high-quality colour images of century-ago Russia

The color process Prokudin-Gorsky worked with required three separate black-and-white exposures, each one taken through either a red, green or blue filter. When the filtered exposures were combined, the result was the full chromatic spectrum.

Taken from the Library of Congress: A picture of Mohammed Alim Khan (1880-1944), Emir of Bukhara, taken in 1911. Three black-and-white photographs were taken through red, green and blue filters. The three resulting images were projected through similar filters. Combined on the projection screen, they created a full-colour image. Prokudin-Gorskii also made colour prints from some of his images and published a number of them as inserts in Fotograf-Liubitel, a photographic magazine he edited from 1906 to 1909. In recent years, the Library of Congress has made high-resolution scans of their collection of Prokudin-Gorskii’s original glass plate negatives and contracted with outside agencies to produce high-quality colour-corrected images from the black-and-white scans. This example is a simple colour composite of the three original images shown at right and has not been colour-corrected, retouched, or artificially enhanced in any way.

“Digichromatography” version

Taken from the Library of Congress: 1911, a merchant at the Samarkand market displays silk, cotton and wool fabrics as well as a few traditional carpets. A framed page of the Koran hangs at the top of the stall.

Taken from the Library of Congress: 1907-1915, Prokudin-Gorksii captures the traditional dress, jewelry and hairstyle of an Uzbek woman standing on a richly decorated carpet at the entrance to a yurt, a portable tent used for housing by the nomadic peoples of Central Asia. After conquering Turkestan in the mid-1800s, the Russian government exerted strong pressure on the nomadic peoples to settle permanently in villages, towns and cities.

Taken from the Library of Congress: 1911, Samarkand, an ancient commercial, intellectual, and spiritual center on the Silk Road from Europe to China, developed a remarkably diverse population, including Tajiks, Persians, Uzbeks, Arabs, Jews and Russians. Samarkand, and all of West Turkestan, was incorporated into the Russian Empire in the middle of the 19th century and has retained its ethnic diversity. Here, Jewish boys in traditional dress study with their teacher.

Taken from the Library of Congress: 1910, Monks plant potatoes in fields reclaimed from the dense conifer forest at the Gethsemane Hermitage on Lake Seliger near the headwaters of the Volga River.

Taken from the Library of Congress: ca. 1907-1915, wearing traditional dress and headgear, a Turkmen camel driver poses with his camel, laden with what is most likely grain or cotton. Camel caravans remained the most common means of transporting food, raw materials and manufactured goods in Central Asia well into the railroad era.

Taken from the Library of Congress: 1911, many Central Asiatic peoples lived nomadic lives, migrating seasonally from one place to another as opportunities for obtaining food, water, and shelter changed. Shown here is a young Kazakh family in colorful traditional dress moving across the Golodnaia (or “Hungry”) steppe in present-day Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

Taken from the Library of Congress: The Village of Kolchedan in Ural Mountains, 1912

Taken from the Library of Congress: A Madrasa in Samarkand, circa 1912

Taken from the Library of Congress: Self-portrait of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorsky, on the Korolistskali River, 1912


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One Comment Add yours

  1. Jack Ketch says:

    Superb! Thank you. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

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