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New Times | Culture | MIRACLES OF THE TSAR’S PHOTOGRAPHER
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MIRACLES OF THE TSAR’S PHOTOGRAPHER
By Georgy Osipov
Colour photography early last century? Yes!
 
No, I do not mean the black-and-white prints tinted with a varying degree of artistry that enterprising tradesmen used to pass off as the latest achievement in photography. Take any encyclopaedia or reference book on Russian inventors and look for the name of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorsky there. It is unlikely you will find it.

Prokudin-Gorsky was born in St.Petersburg in 1863, two years after the abolition of serfdom. Though a “pure” chemist by education, a student of Dmitri Mendeleyev, from early on he was enthusiastic about photography, a new art at that time. As a young man he visited all the European capitals: he looked, noted and committed it to his memory. Colour photos were his dream. He went about taking them in the first years of the 20th century after he had patented his method of making colour slides and colour films.

Regrettably, not a single apparatus Prokudin-Gorsky used survived. But, very roughly, the gist of his method was as follows. He used a camera that exposed an oblong glass photographic plate three times in rapid succession through three filters of different colours: red, green and dark blue. For so to speak official presentations he would make glass transparences and project them with a magic lantern (actually there were three projectors placed one behind the other, with three separate light sources) with three lenses. The image passed through the three lenses and produced, with the help of three colour filters, a colour projection of very good quality.

The photographer could have lived quite comfortably just taking photos of the capital city and its high-ranking inhabitants. But he had a different idea: he wanted to use his method to record all of Russia, a kind of cross section of Russian life in the early 20th century.

Who can say how many doorsteps of government offices Prokudin–Gorsky had to camp out on, but in 1908 his experiments came to the notice of the tsar’s court. What happened was, using the language of physics, a superposition of waves beneficial for the artist: the tsar’s daughters were delighted with what Prokudin showed with his magic lantern. The tsar (and the empress as well) were great admirers of photography and cinema making, and had a keen interest in novelties in the field.

It is not known to this day what specifically Nicholas II talked to Prokudin-Gorsky about or what licence he issued the man; we only know the results. Prokudin-Gorsky was given permission to visit any place in the Russian Empire, including the most restricted areas. The Ministry of Transportation provided him with a comfortably equipped railway car specially fitted out for the artist (one half of it served as his living quarters and the other housed his photography laboratory). Local officials rendered all kinds of real assistance to the tsar’s favourite, instead of only pretending to assist as was frequently the case. Prokudin-Gorsky succeeded in visiting eleven areas. Midland Russia, the Russian North (he photographed, among other things, the construction of the railway spur to Romanov-on-Murman, today’s Murmansk, a top secret project during the Wold War I), Central Asia, Siberia, the Urals… ancient Russian monasteries, the new bridges of the Trans-Siberian Railway line, and the tea-packing factories in Georgia – nothing escaped Proskudin-Gorsky’s lenses. An extraordinary spectrum of human types, from the Emir of Bukhara who could rival a sumo wrestler to Bukhara melon seller: this type has survived into the 21st century.

Apparently the photographer knew the road northward best. He had no illusions after the October coup d’etat, and it was the northern road that he took to flee Russia, first to Norway and from there to Britain and France. Well, the wizards of the North must have done a good job – the master survived along with his collection. How he managed to take out over two thousand glass plates is a mystery. He was hardly aware of the fate that had befallen Maxim Dmitriyev, another great Russian photographer: only a few of his works survived because his plates were either just smashed (as a lesson to the bourgeois) or utilized to build proletarian hothouses.

After the master photographer died in his nineties in Paris, his collection was bought from his heirs by the US Library of Congress in 1948. It is thanks to its generosity that the first post-1917 Russian exhibition of Prokudin-Gorsky’s collection has been held in Moscow’s Museum of Architecture in Vozdvizhenka Street. Of course, only part of the collection is on display, the others can be seen in a computer. And, of course, many of Prokudin’s photos have been “cleaned” (glass plates tend to grow dim, to crack) using modern digital technologies.

Unfortunately, there is no notice of the exhibition even on the front wall of the Museum building. In part it is understandable: the building is being repaired, the condition of the ancient mansion leaves much to be desired, and the curious mobs are not very welcome… Or this is the current style of the Museum. A dainty dish is served to connoisseurs and experts only. If others drop in and enjoy it, it’s their good fortune…
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