I recently learned about these photographs taken in the Russian Empire between 1905 and 1915. Not being overly interested in the Russian Empire (Not that it’s not interesting! It’s not you, Russian Empire, it’s me.), I didn’t take much notice, until I saw this, of the Bibi Khanym Mosque in Samarkand (in Uzbekistan):
AND he traveled around the Russian Empire with a darkroom in a rail car, provided by Tsar Nicholas II, who also supported other aspects of Prokudin-Gorskii’s journeys. His goal was to document the people and places of this vast empire, which he did through hundreds of photographs. The Library of Congress purchased his photography collection, including glass negatives, and digitized them, so they’re now accessible at the Library of Congress website. If you want to see more than I’m showing you here, check out the Library of Congress website.
The difference between the black and white and the color images is captivating, especially when there are people in the photograph. Many of the color photos look to me as if they could be of modern scenes. This probably isn’t the best example, because of the way the people are dressed, but I can’t resist showing it to you anyway:
And in color:
This one looks to me like the old photograph that it is:
(Sart meant city-dwellers.) And this one could be people today, dressed historically:
The blue robe and white turban of the man in the colored version immediately brought to mind this image of Mehmed the Conqueror:
Again, an old photograph:
In color, it looks like a scene from a play:
I was struck, when I first saw one of these color photographs, by how much color changes the whole feel of the image, which feels like kind of a silly thing to say. But in this case, I think that it’s the quality of the color that makes all of the difference. These particular images were produced with modern techniques: “In 2004, the Library of Congress contracted with computer scientist Blaise Agüera y Arcas to produce an automated color composite of each of the 1,902 negatives from the high-resolution digital images of the glass-plate negatives. He applied algorithms to compensate for the differences between the exposures and prepared color composites of all the negatives in the collection.”¹ So these are, in a way, modern photographs that were taken over 100 years ago. Pretty amazing.
Below is the first Prokudin-Gorskii photograph that I saw. When I heard that it was taken between 1905 and 1915, I did a double take. In reality, if this were taken today, this man would probably be wearing more Westernized clothes. But it’s possible, isn’t it, that an old man could still be selling melons in this manner, and that in a small village, he could be dressed like this?
One more example, before I leave you, because although it’s been repaired, the minaret was leaning when Prokudin-Gorskii took this photo, and it’s not very often that you see a leaning minaret:
And finally, Sergeĭ Mikhaĭlovich Prokudin-Gorski himself, in color, of course
from a photograph that he took himself:
1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sergey_Prokudin-Gorsky, see note 12.