[Silverbacks are not known for their long attention spans, so I have provided a truncated version of this interesting article. The link that follows will bring you to the complete essay. SB SM]
In Search of True Color
Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky’s Flawed Images
Archived amid Prokudin-Gorsky’s vast photographic survey of the Russian Empire, we find images shot through with starshatter cracks, blebbed with mildew, and blurred by motion. Within such moments of unmaking, Erica X Eisen uncovers the overlapping forces at play behind these pioneering efforts in colour photography.
December 7, 2022
Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky, Peasant Girls [Russian Empire], 1909, digital colour composite by Blaise Agüera y Arcas, 2004. Three young women offer berries to visitors of their izba, a traditional wooden house, in a rural area along the Sheksna River, near the town of Kirillov — Source.
“At 9 [PM]”, Tsar Nicholas II recorded in his diary on January 22, 1911, “Prokudin-Gorsky showed us his beautiful color photos of the Volga and the Urals in the Semi-circular Hall. Dmitri and I played billiards.”1 As well as telegraphing a certain princely boredom, the entry is testament to a striking early achievement in the history of photography: the work of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorsky, an academic and scientist from Murom whose research interests had come to focus on photochemistry. At a time when black-and-white was still the dominant photographic mode, Prokudin-Gorsky had perfected a technique of capturing scenes in full color, so that he could dazzle audiences in St. Petersburg with magic lantern shows that looked to be brimming with life: plates of ruby-red berries, lush greenhouses, scale-like church roofs radiant in the sun.
As the editor and publisher of the prominent photography magazine Fotograf-Lyubitel, Prokudin-Gorsky had used his position not only to report on advances in color photography but also to illustrate these discussions with select reproductions of his own images, establishing him as a leader in the field and garnering widespread public notice for his portraits of Tolstoy.2 The wave of fame these photos brought him culminated in a 1909 invitation to the Romanovs’ summer residence at Tsarskoe Selo, where he gave the imperial family a private demonstration of his work. On the strength of that original presentation, Nicholas granted the photographer virtual carte blanche to pursue his dream of documenting the empire via 10,000 images in full color, allowing him access to areas that would otherwise have been off-limits and even outfitting the expedition with a special train-car-turned-dark-room.
Drawing upon the work of James Clerk Maxwell, Adolf Miethe, and others, Prokudin-Gorsky honed a technique that mimicked how the human eye processes light by dividing it into three discrete channels. With the aid of special triple-wide glass plates, the photographer would capture each scene three times over — first through a blue filter, then a green one, and lastly a red one. The positive images, when projected using these same filters, could then be recombined and overlayed to produce a gem-bright composite.3 In its elaborate three-shot, three-filter requirements, the technique differed from other early color photographic technologies, notably the Lumière Brothers’ potato-starch-based Autochrome, which the professor considered “complex and capricious” and discarded in favor of his own methods.4
Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky, Emir of Bukhara, 1911. Left are the filtered glass negatives, right is a digital colour composite by Blaise Agüera y Arcas, 2004 — Source.
The most well-known of Prokudin-Gorsky’s works possess both a vitality and the peculiar bittersweetness that comes from seeing a world lost to the past: boys studying at a school in Bukhara’s Jewish community, now largely dispersed through emigration; nomadic pastoralists in Central Asia whose traditional way of life would soon be radically altered by forced settlement and collectivization. But there is something equally arresting about those lesser-seen works among Prokudin-Gorsky’s œuvre, photographs that their maker might well have understood in some sense as “failures”: warped images, off images, images shot through with starshatter cracks where the plate was smashed, blebbed with mold and mildew, scratched with a fingernail, or caked in dust. Here our focus strays away from elegant landscapes and fantastical Orthodox church domes and toward the great effort involved in staging and producing the photographs themselves.
The phrase “true color” occurs a number of times across Prokudin-Gorsky’s surviving writings. To him, this was his œuvre’s chief virtue, the quality that set it apart from both black-and-white photography and other forms of art. “These images are everlasting—they do not change”, he wrote in a letter attempting to convince Tolstoy to sit for him. “No painted reproduction can achieve such results.”5 Projected for audiences across Europe — the most common way Prokudin-Gorsky’s works were seen by the public during his lifetime — his photographs were met with wonder and rapturous praise: a record of one such display for a group of specialists reports “lengthy unceasing applause and shouts of approbation among those present”.6
Erica X Eisen’s work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Baffler, n+1, The Boston Review, AGNI, and elsewhere. She received her bachelor’s degree in History of Art & Architecture from Harvard University with a focus on Japanese art and her MA in Buddhist Art History & Conservation from The Courtauld Institute of Art. She is an editor at Hypocrite Reader. Her writing can be found at www.ericaxeisen.com.