Tag Archives: Cutting Edge Technology

History in Color: Rare Photographs of Czarist Russia

A bright orange orb hangs just above the horizon under an expanse of blue and yellow sky. It’s hard to take an interesting picture of a sunset, and at first glance, there is nothing remarkable about this one. What is remarkable, however, is that this vivid image was taken a century ago—a time usually seen only in black and white.

The sunset is just one of thousands of color photographs that Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii made between 1905 and 1915. With funding from Czar Nicholas II, he set out to document the diverse people and landscapes of the vast Russian Empire. Prokudin-Gorskii planned to produce images that would be used in classrooms, but the widespread exposure he envisioned for his pictures was not to be.

Without an affordable method for mass reproduction and with the upheaval of the Bolshevik Revolution, the photographs languished until the entire collection, including nearly 2,000 glass negatives, was purchased by the Library of Congress in 1948. But they too were unable to find a suitable way to present Prokudin-Gorskii’s work until nearly 100 years after they were taken—when digital equipment allowed the library to scan all 1,902 negatives and restore Prokudin-Gorskii’s pictures to their original color.

“His cutting-edge technology met our internet and digitizing cutting-edge technology in just an almost perfect cycle,” said Helena Zinkham, chief of the Prints and Photographs Division of the LOC.

Made public through the LOC’s website beginning in 2001, Prokudin-Gorskii’s digitally restored photographs were shared over the web and featured in a number of small exhibitions around the world. People were drawn, Zinkham believes, as much by the format of the pictures as the content.

“It is as rare as hen’s teeth to have color photography from that era,” said Zinkham. “So it just knocks peoples’ socks off, even if you have no direct connection to Russia.”

Among those who discovered Prokudin-Gorskii’s pictures online was Robert Klanten, the publisher of German publishing company Gestalten. “I saw a couple of these photographs and I was immediately in love with them,” said Klanten. This October, Gestalten will release Nostalgia: The Russian Empire of Czar Nicholas II Captured in Color Photographs, which will feature 283 of Prokudin-Gorskii’s works.

Combing through the entire Prokudin-Gorskii collection, Gestalten’s editorial team was particularly drawn to the portraits and scenes from daily life—many of which were shot in a ‘snapshot’ style despite the three-second exposures necessary to create them.

The pictures themselves cover a remarkable range—both geographically and in subject matter. Portraits were taken against backdrops that range from lush Siberian forests to neatly planted fields to a dank and crumbling prison yard in Turkestan. Even simple scenes—a train track cutting through a rock-strewn landscape or mine workers filling horse-drawn carts—are striking when you realize they portray a land on the verge of revolution, both industrial and political. It is even more appropriate, then, that Prokudin-Gorskii captured these scenes with a groundbreaking photographic method.

“Most people think of the past as something that happened in black and white,” said Klanten. The use of color, combined with Prokudin-Gorskii’s less-formal style was revolutionary in photography, according to Klanten. “The way he approached the whole thing is kind of a precursor to modern photography…it is almost a democratic approach to photography.”

Nostalgia: The Russian Empire of Czar Nicholas II Captured in Color Photographs will be released in the U.S. by Gestalten in October. 

You can explore the entire Prokudin-Gorskii collection at the Library of Congress

Bill Miller

Bill Miller became preoccupied with photography when he attended high school in Manhattan, but I think he was studying painting with Clyfford Still in another lifetime. Bill’s stunning Broken Polaroids images don’t necessarily reflect his rich photographic roots; He graduated from Bard College where he studied photography with Larry Fink and Stephen Shore. He’s been a photojournalist and documentary photographer ever since then and has worked with Saveur, Harpers, Paris Match, Spin, GQ, Stern, The Globe and Mail, the NY Daily News, as well as organizations such as Doctor’s Without Borders, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Human Rights Watch and he’s been a photographer for the New York Post for close to 10 years.

Broken Polaroids: These pictures are taken with a camera that is, by most definitions, broken. I found an old Polaroid SX-70 camera under a pile of junk at a yard sale last summer. I’ve always loved this camera for its weird, mysterious, and enchanting qualities. It is an ingeniously conceived, complicated bundle of gears and switches with hundreds of moving parts packed in tight like a chrome and leather pistol. As digital cameras become smaller and quieter with no moving parts, the Polaroid with its noisy engine, gears, and rubber bellows seems increasingly charming and archaic to me. What was a cutting edge technology in 1972 is now teetering on the edge of extinction.

With its first use I realized the camera wasn’t functioning properly. It sometimes spills out 2 pictures at a time and the film often gets stuck in the gears, exposing and mangling the images in unpredictable ways. This is common with Polaroids. I’ve been shooting this SX-70 film my whole life and from my experience at least 5% of the time the images fail for one reason or another. Over time you stop noticing. The failed Polaroids are discarded with the packaging, a statistical casualty of such a complicated mechanism. It was only when my statistical casualties jumped to nearly 100% that I realized that even against my will, this camera was making, totally by chance, some interesting, and occasionally beautiful pictures. It’s this kind of unpredictability that makes old cameras and processes appealing and it wasn’t until I noticed what was happening that I started saving them. I must have thrown out scores of ruined Polaroids over the years. Millions of happy accidents have probably been discarded, unappreciated over the last few decades around the world.

As my SX-70 became more eccentric the film showed less and less of what was in front of the lens. Yet out of habit or instinct or lack of common sense I kept pointing it at things. “It’s a camera, after all. Isn’t it?” I thought, even though it appeared to be totally indifferent to the objects I focused on. Maybe it’s a camera that was dropped on its head, got amnesia and became a photographic painting machine.

Either way, I was impressed with the old technology’s resilience and before long I was participating in its process, collaborating with it. Over time I’ve figured out how to control and accentuate aspects of the camera’s flaws but the images themselves are always a surprise. Each one is determined by the idiosyncrasies of the film and the camera.

I found that when I was looking at the prints I couldn’t get close enough, not with my eye, not with a lupe. So I started scanning them at high resolutions so I could see what wasn’t readily viewable. What I found was a rich variety of color texture made from crumpled and stressed emulsion inside the Polaroids, reminiscent of topographical landscapes. I used huge files (600mb) to make 30×36 in prints where these details could be seen. I kept the classic Polaroid white border to give a sense of its scale.