What a Difference Color Can Make! Prokudin-Gorskii’s Photos of Samarkand

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):

Bibi-Khanym mosque (late 14th century). Dome from the southeast side. Samarkand. Photo by Sergeĭ Mikhaĭlovich Prokudin-Gorskiĭ, taken between 1905-15. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Prokudin-Gorskii Collection Sergeĭ Mikhaĭlovich

And this of the Gur-e Amir Mausoleum, also in Samarkand, where Timur (Tamerlane) is buried:

Entrance into the Gur-Emir mosque (late 14th cent, actually a mausoleum). Samarkand. Sergeĭ Mikhaĭlovich Prokudin-Gorskiĭ, photo taken between 1905-15. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Prokudin-Gorskii Collection

Are they or are they not stunning?  And it gets better!  The photographer, Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii, was an early practitioner of color photography. (Read all about it here.)

Dome of the Gur-Emir mosque from eastern side, 14th century. Samarkand. Photo by Prokudin-Gorskii, taken between 1905-15. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Prokudin-Gorskii Collection

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:

On the Registan. Samarkand, Photo by Prokudin-Gorskii, taken between 1905-15. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Prokudin-Gorskii Collection

And in color:

On the Registan. Samarkand, Photo by Prokudin-Gorskii, taken between 1905-15. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Prokudin-Gorskii Collection

This one looks to me like the old photograph that it is:

Sart schoolchildren. Samarkand, Prokudin-Gorskii, 1905-15. Photo by Prokudin-Gorskii, taken between 1905-15. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Prokudin-Gorskii Collection

(Sart meant city-dwellers.)  And this one could be people today, dressed historically:

Sart schoolchildren. Samarkand, Prokudin-Gorskii, 1905-15. Photo by Prokudin-Gorskii, taken between 1905-15. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Prokudin-Gorskii Collection

The blue robe and white turban of the man in the colored version immediately brought to mind this image of Mehmed the Conqueror:

Turkish miniature of Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror, painting by Nakkaş Sinan Bey.

Again, an old photograph:

Group of Jewish children with a teacher. Samarkand. Photo by Prokudin-Gorskii, taken between 1905-15. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Prokudin-Gorskii Collection

In color, it looks like a scene from a play:

Group of Jewish children with a teacher. Samarkand. Photo by Prokudin-Gorskii, taken between 1905-15. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Prokudin-Gorskii Collection

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?

Melon vendor. Samarkand. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Prokudin-Gorskii Collection.

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:

Mirza-Uluk-Bek. Registan. Samarkand. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Prokudin-Gorskii Collection

And finally, Sergeĭ Mikhaĭlovich Prokudin-Gorski himself, in color, of course

detail of the photograph “Po r. Karolitskhali” or “On the Karolitskhali River” showing Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. Early color photograph from Russia, created by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii as part of his work to document the Russian Empire from 1909 to 1915.

from a photograph that he took himself:

Self-portrait of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. Early color photograph from Russia, created by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii as part of his work to document the Russian Empire from 1904 to 1916.

1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sergey_Prokudin-Gorsky, see note 12.

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5 thoughts on “What a Difference Color Can Make! Prokudin-Gorskii’s Photos of Samarkand

  1. Karen – These are fascinating. I wonder what happened to the photographer during the Russian Revolution. The picture of the Jewish teacher and children was especially dear for some reason…

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