Can you believe these photographs are over one hundred years old? I go through a lot of historical archives– I think I’ve lost count– but I don’t think I’ve ever looked at a photograph from the past and felt its subjects come alive so vividly, as if they’ve almost just blinked at me, as if it were just yesterday.
In 1948, the Library of Congress purchased this collection of over 2,000 images from the sons of Sergey Mikhaylovich Prokudin-Gorsky, a Russian chemist and photographer whose pioneering work in colour photography captured early 20th-century Russia like no one else could.
His photographs offer a vivid portrait of a lost world—the Russian Empire between 1905 and 1915, on the eve of World War I and the coming Russian Revolution. In order to systematically document the empire, Sergey had been outfitted with a specially equipped railroad-car darkroom provided by Tsar Nicholas II himself, and given two permits that granted him access to restricted areas.
When the tsar and his family were executed during the revolution, he left Russia for Paris, in a self-imposed exile. Before leaving his homeland, it’s estimated he had about 3500 negatives ready to take with him, but upon his departure, about half of the photos were confiscated by communist authorities. Sergey gave some away and also hid a number of negatives before leaving, but outside the Library of Congress collection, none of his other work has yet been found.
Following the photographer’s death, just one month after the liberation of Paris in 1944, the surviving boxes of photo albums and fragile glass plates were stored in the basement of a Parisian apartment building. His family was worried about them getting damaged, so when a researcher from the Library of Congress began inquiring into their whereabouts, the collection was purchased from Prokudin-Gorsky’s heirs for $3500–$5000
Perhaps Prokudin-Gorsky’s best-known photograph was his colour portrait of Leo Tolstoy, which was widely circulated on postcards and first earned him an audience with the Tsar Nicholas II and his family.
He had studied with the most advanced practitioner of photography at that time in Germany, learning several techniques such as colour sensitization and three-colour photography. He was also one of the favoured few that the Lumière Brothers introduced to their new Autochrome colour plates product in 1906, the year before it went into commercial production.
For anyone who has ever found it difficult to connect with historical photographs; to find life behind the faces printed in black & white, Prokudin-Gorsky is the photographer that allows his subjects to time travel. It makes you wonder– what will they think of our photographs in a hundred years time?