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(Super) Early Colour Photography: Prokudin-Gorsky

One of Prokudin-Gorsky’s famous color photographs showcasing the diverse landscapes of the Russian Empire.

Born in Murom, Russia, in 1863, Prokudin-Gorsky was a visionary in the truest sense, pioneering the field of color photography in the early 20th century. His remarkable body of work offers a vibrant portal into a bygone era, presenting the Russian Empire in vivid color. Photographic Career and Technique In 1901, Prokudin-Gorsky established a photographic studio and laboratory in Saint Petersburg. He then went to Berlin in 1902 to study color sensitization and three-color photography with Adolf Miethe, a leading photochemist of the time. Prokudin-Gorsky’s method of color photography, inspired by the three-color principle first suggested by James Clerk Maxwell, was based on taking three black-and-white photographs through red, green, and blue filters. These images, when projected together using corresponding filters, recreated the original scene's colors.

ergey Prokudin-Gorsky with his pioneering color photography equipment
The camera

His technique involved a camera that exposed a single, narrow glass plate three times in rapid succession through the different color filters. The challenge was to maintain the continuity of the scene, particularly in changing outdoor conditions. For formal presentations, he used a magic lantern projector, with each colored slide projected through three lenses to form a full-color image on a screen.

Prokudin-Gorsky's three-color filter technique demonstrated through an example photograph.
The Projector

Recognition Perhaps his most famous work was the color portrait of Leo Tolstoy (top of the article), which gained widespread fame and was reproduced in various publications and postcards. His work impressed the Russian Tsar Nicholas II, who, in 1909, sponsored Prokudin-Gorsky’s project to document the Russian Empire in color. This ambitious project led to the creation of a significant collection of color photographs of the Russian Empire before the October Revolution.

The Library of Congress, recognizing the significance of Prokudin-Gorsky Colour Photography , has undertaken projects to digitally recreate these photographs. Using high-resolution scans of the original glass plate negatives, digital techniques are employed to align and color-balance the images, producing vibrant color composites. This digital process, however, does not replicate the exact historical colors but offers a richer and brighter representation.

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