The scientist who captured the Russian Empire in colour photographs before they were invented

Photography has improved so much, technologically speaking, that today we see images from only twenty years ago and they almost seem prehistoric to us; in fact, many people probably don’t even know what rolls were or how the processing was done. It would be even worse if we go back a little further, to black and white photography. Of course, there are sometimes disconcerting surprises like that of Sergei Prokudin-Gorski, the Russian scientist who shot colour photos at the beginning of the 20th century -before polychromatic film was invented- and with excellent quality.

Self-portrait of Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky in 1912 / Image public domain on Wikimedia Commons

His full name was Sergey Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorski, born in Murom (a city in the Vladimir Oblast, Russia, near Moscow) in 1863, although he moved with his family, which was noble, to St. Petersburg. He studied chemistry, music and painting before marrying the daughter of a rich industrialist, Anna Aleksandrovna Lavrova, in 1890, with whom he had a son and a daughter. Sergey became interested in photography early on and became an expert, publishing works and giving lectures. His father-in-law introduced him to the Imperial Russian Technical Society which arranged his first exhibition in 1900 and a year later he opened his own studio.

This was not really something new from a chronological point of view, since the camera obscura idea had been known since Antiquity and more scientific questions began to be discovered in the Renaissance that would be fundamental for the appearance of photographic technique: from the chemical properties of nitrate and silver chloride to the diaphragm, including the heliographic positivity of images. The big leap was made in the nineteenth century, first with daguerreotypes (printing images on silver plates using iodine and mercury vapours) and then with calotypes (using paper dipped in silver nitrate instead of plates).

This photo of writer Leo Tolstoy, taken in 1908, is probably Sergey Prokudin-Gorski’s best known work / Image public domin on Wikimedia Commons

Throughout that century there were more advances and by the time Sergei entered that world, the American George Eastman had already invented photographic film (1888). Of course, the images were only in black and white. Scottish photographer James Clerk Maxwell had made the first colour photo in 1861 using what he called a trichrome system, which involved passing light through three coloured filters (red, green and blue); but the emulsion he used was insufficient and the result was far from satisfactory, so he was not very successful.

Others who tried were the French Louis Ducos du Hauron and Charles Cros, as well as the German Hermann W. Vogel, but the methods they used were very complicated and therefore impossible to market, so Sergei decided to go into that field and investigate how to get colour photographs in a definitive way. To this end, he travelled to Berlin to study photochemistry with the scientist Adolf Miethe, and then continued his studies with other European experts. When he returned to his country, he conceived what was to be the great project of his life: a photographic documentary on the Russian Empire that would bring together all the cultural, historical and artistic aspects with the aim of using it in school education.

When he started to do so, colour photography had taken another step forward with systems such as the kromscop by the American Frederick E. Ives, the Sanger Shepherd by the Englishman Edward Sanger-Shepherd or the advances offered by the former professor of the Russian, the aforementioned Adolf Miethe. Even the Lumiére brothers patented the autochrome plate in 1903 (although they did not market it until 1907), which would be the most used until the Kodachrome film displaced it in the thirties. But Sergei was not convinced and developed his own methods.

Jewish children with their teacher in Samarkand, 1900-1915 / Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

He already enjoyed a prestigious reputation and in 1906 he was elected president of the photography section of the aforementioned Imperial Russian Technical Society, as well as becoming editor of a specialized magazine, so he obtained from Tsar Nicholas II a darkroom adapted to a railway carriage and permits that not only gave him access to restricted places but also obliged officials to provide him with all possible assistance. That unusual railway photographic expedition travelled around the Russian Empire between 1909 and 1915, gathering an important collection of colour images of excellent quality, around three and a half thousand.

Sergei used the triple filter system: he captured monochromatic images three times, each time with a filter of each colour (green, red and blue) in a high-speed sequence (between one and three seconds) so that they could then be projected with an appropriate light that allowed the joint chromaticism to be faithfully reconstructed. This was a limited method because it only allowed to see the projected photos, not printed (except some photomechanical printing for magazine covers), but the subsequent technology has allowed to print them and the result is amazingly good.

Simple, unretouched color composition of Alim Khan, the result of merging the three images on the right, each shot with a red, green and blue filter / Image: public domin on Wikimedia Commons

In fact, three times as many photos were planned, but the outbreak of the Revolution interrupted the work because, obviously, neither the Tsar’s safe-conduct was any longer valid, nor could a train be allowed to just run around the country. Sergey was appointed professor by the revolutionary government but in August 1918 he was on a professional trip in Norway and, after learning that the Bolsheviks had shot Nicholas II and his family, thus starting a civil war, he decided not to return. As the Norwegians were quite outdated in photography, he moved to London in 1919.

He requested and obtained permission to have his collection sent to him. He could not claim all the material, as some of it was considered to be reserved because they were images of strategic places and ended up being lost, but he did save the most interesting part. Most of them were negatives and plates that in 1948 were located in a basement in Paris and acquired by the Library of Congress of the United States; they are exactly nineteen hundred and two negatives and seven hundred and ten copies that had a price of five thousand dollars.

Austro-Hungarian prisoners in Russia, 1915 / Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Why Paris? Because Sergei settled there in 1922, after marrying his assistant Maria Fedorovna Shchedrina (with whom he had another child) in a second marriage. His children and even his ex-wife were able to join them over the next few years. In the French capital he opened a studio from which he could earn a living. He retired in the following decade, leaving the business to his heirs, who renamed it Gorsky Frères. He planned a trip to the United States but died earlier, in September 1944, just one month after the liberation of Paris.

Sources: Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorsky (Svetlana Garanina) / “The splendors of Russia Collection” in the Library of Congress (Victor Minachin) / International Research Project “The legacy of S. M Prokudin-Gorsky” / Colour Photography: the first hundred years 1840-1940 (Brian Coe) /Wikipedia