Friday, June 19, 2009

New Russian art, AD 1909

These color photographs were all taken in the Russian Empire between 1909 and 1918.

Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii was a Russian photographer born in 1863. After studying chemistry with Mendeleev and later with Adolf Miethe - one of the crucial figures in the invention of color photography - Gorskii started developing his own techniques and processes of color photography, giving it a quality that even impresses even today.
In 1909, he convinced the tsar Nicolas II to send him on a trip across the Russian Empire, to document its impressive diversity. It was a 10-year project, during which Gorskii took over 10 000 pictures, and it ended up outlasting the tsar himself, and the Empire for that matter, as the October Revolution swept away the monarchy. In 1918, he emigrated to Paris, where he died in 1944.

The image archive of 1902 negatives which were left was bought by the Library of Congress a few years after the artist's death, and was put online in 2004. You can find it here.

Prokuda-Gorskii's most famous photo is of Leo Tolstoy, dated 1908.

But I prefer this monumental, megalomaniac and modest project of documenting Imperial Russia, which at the time was larger than the USSR ever came to be. The diversity of the people, and the shockingly modern colors of their portraits, make them impossible to forget. They are our contemporaries, now that they stopped hiding between the unfocused black-and-whiteness.
They are almost too present.

Austrian (probably meaning also Polish and of other origins) prisoners somewhere in Russia. It's really worth seeing a high-resolution image.

Here he is, Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii. In a landscape that is (eerily?) ours.
PS. The amazing color bars that appear on some of the pictures are the result of Prokudin-Gorskii's ingenious process, which consisted in taking three subsequent, monochromatic photographs, one with a green filter, one with blue and one with red. He then superimposed the three projections using lamps with a corresponding filter system. I adore these frames, unfortunately some of the images needed additional computer editing (by the Library of Congress) and in this version were cropped.
You can find an extended biography of Gorskii here.