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Tsarist Russia in colors: how Prokudin-Gorsky created color photographs more than 100 years ago

The Russian Empire was famous for talented people in various fields. There were outstanding photographers in Russia. The pioneer of world color photography, Prokudin-Gorsky, is known as the owner of the largest collection of color photographs of pre-revolutionary Russia.

From chemist to photographer
Since childhood, Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorsky was interested in the exact sciences: physics, chemistry, biology. He was a student of Dmitri Mendeleev, worked as a chemist and lectured at universities and academies. From his youth, Gorsky’s favorite hobby was photography. In the 1890s, Gorsky decided to devote himself entirely to this craft. He began his work with the study of photo-painting, visiting exhibitions in Berlin and Paris.

Since 1897, Prokudin-Gorsky began to send regular photo reports to the Russian Imperial Technical Society. A year later, he became his permanent member after he demonstrated a series of shots entitled “Starfall”. Since 1898, Gorsky was engaged in the publication of scientific works on photography. He published several reports on the manifestation of negatives and described his experience with hand-held cameras.
Start color shooting

At the beginning of 1903, Prokudy-Gorsky first published a report on the application of the Mite method for creating color photographs. Two years earlier, a German scientist and photographer Adolf Mieth discovered a revolutionary in its own way a way of displaying images with the highest color rendition. According to Novate.ru information in 1902, Proskudy-Gorsky was trained in the laboratory of Mita in Berlin, where he personally met a German photographer and learned about its development.

In order to create a color photograph using a new method, it was necessary to take three shots using different color filters. After that, frames of three different colors were projected simultaneously onto the screen, and as a result a colorful color photo was obtained. The process was very laborious, it took several hours to create one photo. Over the years, Gorsky perfected the method of Mite, significantly reducing time costs.
Travel to Russia and Europe

For fifteen years, Prokudy-Gorsky went on several dozen trips around Russia and Europe and in total made about 3,500 color photographs. Gorsky’s Photo Archive is the largest collection of color photographs of the Tsarist era. The works of the Russian photographer many times appeared at exhibitions in France, Germany and England, and also won several honorary awards.

From 1904 to 1906, the photographer visited the Crimea, the Caucasus, Finland and Kazakhstan, from which he brought several hundred unique color photographs. A year later, Gorsky set off on a long journey through Turkestan, where he wanted to capture a large solar eclipse. And although the idea could not be realized due to cloudiness, the photographer took many pictures of the city and its inhabitants.

In 1908, Prokudy-Gorsky visited the estate of Yasnaya Polyana, where he captured Leo Tolstoy. Later in his memoirs, the photographer noted that the great writer was very interested in the works of Gorsky and predicted the great future of color photography. There is also information that the photographer photographed the royal family, but these images are not freely available or they are irretrievably lost.

The glory of the great Russian photographer spread throughout Russia and reached the emperor himself. In 1909, Nicholas II personally instructed Gorsky to make a large collection of photographs of the cultural life of the Russian Empire. For traveling around the country, the photographer was separately allocated a train carriage, for sea trips a boat, and a foreign Ford was specially ordered for ground transportation. The emperor gave Prokudin-Gorsky the right to freely visit any place in Russia.

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