Today, we have cameras everywhere; photography is anything but a novelty. But things were different in Russia a century ago, during the reign of Tsar Nicholas II. Back then, when successful chemist and Russian nobleman Sergey Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944) decided to travel across his homeland and document its people in pictures, color photography was an eccentric, esoteric hobby that required considerable money and some scientific know-how. Luckily, Prokudin-Gorskii had plenty of both, and now some of his hauntingly beautiful work is being spotlighted in a fascinating gallery at Dangerous Minds.
These pictures, dating back to 1909-15, largely document the relatively calm era just before Nicholas II (thinking he was doing God’s will) plunged his country into World War I, a decision that led to widespread famine, revolution, and ultimately Nicholas’ own assassination. But the tumult and misery to come is not evident in these serene, bucolic images. In fact, the Prokudin-Gorskii’s travels were underwritten by the government. Nicholas II supplied the specially designed train car, complete with darkroom, in which the chemist traversed the nation.
Color photography had been around for Prokudin-Gorskii’s entire life, his own birth occurring two years after the first such picture was taken in 1861. But the technology made great strides in the ensuing decades, thanks largely to the work of Scottish scientist James Clerk Maxwell, who first proposed that a full-color image could be rendered through the use of red, green, and blue filters. In Prokudin-Gorskii’s photos, those filters can frequently be seen at the edges of the frame. As these pictures prove, the three-color process, primitive as it seems now, could produce weirdly rich results.