Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky By Shaun McCue

Who was Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky?

Born in August 1863, Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky was a Russian chemist and photographer best known for his pioneering work in colour photography in 20th century Russia.

Prokudin-Gorsky enrolled in Saint Petersburg State Institute of Technology to study chemistry under Dmitri Mendeleev. in 1890 he married Anna Aleksandrovna Lavrova, the daughter of the Russian industrialist Aleksandr Stepanovich Lavrov, an active member in the Imperial Russian Technical Society (IRTS). Produkin-Gorsky subsequently became the director of the executive board of Lavrovs metal works near Saint Petersburg. He also joined Russias oldest photographic society, the photography section of the IRTS, presenting papers and lecturing on the science of photography.

In 1901 he established a photography studio and laboratory in Saint Petersburg. In 1902 he travelled to Berlin and spent six weeks studying colour sensitization and three colour photography with photochemist Adolf Miethe, the most advanced practitioner in Germany at that time. Throughout the years, Prokudin-Gorsky's photographic work, publications and slide shows to other scientists and photographers in Russia, Germany and France earned him praise.

Perhaps Prokudin-Gorsky's best-known work during his lifetime was his color portrait of Leo Tolstoy, which was reproduced in various publications, on postcards, and as larger prints for framing. The fame from this photo and his earlier photos of Russia's nature and monuments earned him invitations to show his work to the Russian Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich and Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna in 1908, and to Tsar Nicholas II and his family in 1909. The Tsar enjoyed the demonstration, and, with his blessing, Prokudin-Gorsky got the permission and funding to document Russia in colour. In the course of ten years, he was to make a collection of 10,000 photos. Prokudin-Gorsky considered the project his life's work and continued his photographic journeys through Russia until after the October Revolution. He was appointed to a new professorship under the new regime, but he left the country in August 1918. He still pursued scientific work in color photography, published papers in English photography journals and, together with his colleague S. O. Maksimovich, obtained patents in Germany, England, France and Italy.

Photography Technique

The method of colour photography used by Prokudin-Gorsky was first suggested by James Clerk Maxwell in 1855 and demonstrated in 1861, but good results were not possible with the photographic materials available at that time. In imitation of the way a normal human eye senses colour, the visible spectrum of colours was divided into three channels of information by capturing it in the form of three black-and-white photographs, one taken through a red filter, one through a green filter, and one through a blue filter. The resulting three photographs could either be projected through filters of the same colours and exactly superimposed on a screen, synthesizing the original range of colour additively; viewed as an additive colour image by one person at a time through an optical device known generically as a chromoscope or photochromoscope, which contained coloured filters and transparent reflectors that visually combined the three into one full-colour image; or used to make photographic or mechanical prints in the complementary colours cyan, magenta and yellow, which, when superimposed, reconstituted the colour subtractively.

The first person to widely demonstrate good results by this method was Frederic E. Ives, whose "Kromskop" system of viewers, projectors and camera equipment was commercially available from 1897 until about 1907. Only the viewers and ready-made triple photographs for use in them sold in any significant quantity. Still life arrangements, unpopulated landscapes and oil paintings were the typical subject matter, but a few examples of colour portraiture from life were also offered. Several Kromskop colour views of the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, apparently never issued commercially, have recently come to light.

Another very notable practitioner was Adolf Miethe, with whom Prokudin-Gorsky studied in Germany in 1902. Miethe was a photochemist who greatly improved the panchromatic characteristics of the black-and-white photographic materials suitable for use with this method of colour photography. He presented projected colour photographs to the German Imperial Family in 1902 and was exhibiting them to the general public in 1903, when they also began to be published in periodicals and books. Miethe took the first known aerial colour photographs, from a hot air balloon, in 1906.

Photographic plates coated with emulsion on a thin sheet of glass were normally used instead of film because a general transition from glass plates to flexible film was still in process at the time and also because glass provided the best dimensional stability for three images intended to match up perfectly when they were later combined. An ordinary camera could be used to take the three pictures, by reloading it and changing filters between exposures, but pioneering photographers usually built or bought special cameras that mad the procedure less time awkward and time consuming. One of the two main types used beam splitters to produce three separate images inside the camera, allowing all three exposures to be made at the same time from the same viewpoint. This type of camera was ideal in theory but were optically complicated and liable to get out of adjustment. The other, more robust type was an essentially ordinary camera with a special sliding holder for the plates and filters that allowed each in turn to be efficiently shifted into position for exposure, an operation that was sometimes partly or even entirely automated by means of a pneumatic mechanism or spring-powered motor. An inventor as well as a photographer, Prokudin-Gorsky patented an optical system for cameras of the simultaneous-exposure type. The required exposure depended on the lighting conditions, aperture used and the sensitivity of the photographic plate.

Other processes

Prokudin-Gorsky was also acquinted with the used of autochrome colour plates which did not require a special camera or projector. He was one of the favoured few the Lumiere brothers introduced to their new product in 1906, the year before it went into commercial production. Autochrome plates were expensive and not sensitive enough for handheld snapshots but their use was simple and they were capable of producing excellent results. They made colour photography truly practical for advanced amateurs and led some pioneering users of colour photography abandon their own methods but Prokudin-Gorsky was not won over. No autochromes of Prokidin-Gorsky are known to survive. Although photographic color prints of the images were difficult to make at the time and slide show lectures consumed much of the time Prokudin-Gorsky used to demonstrate his work, photomechanical color prints of some were published in journals and books, and his studio issued some. Many of the original prints published by his studio still survive.

Around 1905, Prokudin-Gorsky envisioned and formulated a plan to use the emerging technological advancements that had been made in colour photography to document the Russian empire systematically. Through such an ambitious project, his ultimate goal was to educate the schoolchildren of Russia with his "optical colour projections" of the vast and diverse history, culture, and modernization of the empire.

Outfitted with a specially equipped railroad-car 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 documented the Russian Empire around 1909 through 1915. He conducted many illustrated lectures of his work. His photographs offer a vivid portrait of a lost world—the Russian Empire on the eve of World War I and the coming Russian Revolution. His subjects ranged from the medieval churches and monasteries of old Russia, to the railroads and factories of an emerging industrial power, to the daily life and work of Russia's diverse population.

It has been estimated from Prokudin-Gorsky's personal inventory that before leaving Russia, he had about 3500 negatives. Upon leaving the country and exporting all his photographic material, about half of the photos were confiscated by Russian authorities for containing material that seemed to be strategically sensitive for war-time Russia. According to Prokudin-Gorsky's notes, the photos left behind were not of interest to the general public. some of Prokudin-Gorsky's negatives were given away, and some he hid on his departure. Outside the library of congress's collection, none have ever been found.

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