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Nostalgia: The Russian Empire of Czar Nicholas II. The Russia of Czar Nicholas II in laboriously restored historical color photographs by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii

by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii; Robert Klanten, Editor
Gestalten, Berlin, 2012
320 pp., illus. col. Trade, $88.00
ISBN: 978-3-89955-439-7.

Reviewed by Roy R. Behrens, Professor of Art and Distinguished Scholar
University of Northern Iowa


In 1914 the Russian Empire was among the Allied Powers who went to war against Germany and Austria-Hungary, the Central Powers. Three years later, in the upheaval of the Bolshevik Revolution, Czar Nicholas II abdicated, Russia withdrew from the conflict, and in 1918, the czar and his family were murdered.

That same year, among the native Russians who left the country, was a chemist and pioneering photographer named Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944). He was wise to leave because his family had ties to the aristocracy and the military, and in recent years, he had been working for the czar. Beginning in 1909, he had been given financial support, a mobile darkroom, and unusually lenient permission to travel, for the purpose of documenting the people, architecture, landmarks and natural surroundings of what was then the largest, most diverse empire in history. That achievement in itself is amazing, but there is another dimension that makes it more extraordinary—Prokudin-Gorskii’s photographs were made in color, at a time when color photography was rudimentary. Indeed, it would not be widely available for another 25 years.

This impressive volume is a large-sized “coffee table book” in which are collected (in maximum page size) more than 300 of Prokudin-Gorskii’s photographs. There are also informative essays about the purpose and range of his travels. Many of these photographs can only be said to be stunning, because of their richness of color, of course, but also because they provide us with eyewitness views of what it was like to be alive under the rule of Nicholas II, as distinct from the later infamous regimes of the Communists.

To appreciate Prokudin-Gorskii’s achievement, it is essential to realize that, in order to make a single color photograph, he had to shoot three sequential photographs of the same subject (each requiring a one-second interval) in the process of which were inserted (automatically, not by hand) one of three color filters. One filter recorded only red values, another only green, and a third only blue. In other words, it was a system much like that of the backlit computer screens we are all so well acquainted with. It was the RGB (red, green and blue) color system, as distinct from the four-color CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow and black), the system that is used instead when an image is printed on paper. And in fact, he wanted his images to be projected, in educational settings, as a means of acquainting the people with the diversity of the empire. As the essays in this book confirm, “Prokudin-Gorskii’s photographs allowed people to see places that many of them had never seen before—let alone had ever been able to travel to.”

Because of the time and effort required to make three photographs, allowing for three different filters, it was a challenge for subjects sometimes to remain motionless. Inevitably, there are group photographs in which a few of the people have moved, resulting in blurred images and double exposures. Color aberrations and other visual defects, from light leaks, age and damage, might also result.

Prokudin-Gorskii may have made as many as 10,000 photographs, only about half of which he took into exile. Of those, as many as 2000 may have survived. After leaving Russia, he lived in Norway for a couple of years, and, then settled in France in 1922. His photographs were stored in a Paris apartment until, in 1948 (four years after his death), his family sold them to the Library of Congress. For decades, they were not easy to access. But then, starting around 2000, a long-term project was begun in which many of the three-part negatives were digitally scanned, combined in color composites, exhibited and, more recently, also posted online as high resolution digital files. These are the photos contained in this book. Wisely, the restoration experts at the Library of Congress “made a conscious decision not to erase the traces left by the passage of time by means of digital restoration, instead choosing them to remain visible.” Some of these photographs (being regarded as “public domain”) can be found on Wikipedia, along with other online sites.

So how did this book come about? Essentially, it’s an exhibition catalog, or a lavishly printed equivalent to a show of these photographs (not printed and hung on the gallery wall, but—more suitably—projected) at a Berlin gallery called Gestalten Space, an arm of the art book publishing firm, Gestalten. The event’s inclusive dates were from October 19 through November 25, 2012.

Last Updated 1 December 2012

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