Given how many historical photos are video are shot in black and white, many of us can forget that the past was also in full color – we just don’t get to see it. However, these photos of Russia in the beginning of the 20th century by photographer Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky give us a rare glimpse into the past in full and glorious color.
Color photography, in the way that we understand it, was not possible at the time, but it was possible to create a color image for the viewer by completing three separate photographs. Prokudin-Gorsky had to take three separate photographs of the same subject – once with a red filter over the lens, once with a green filter, and once with a blue filter (red, green, blue – RGB – is a set of color channels used by many digital images as well). Later on, these three monochromatic images would be projected through filters of those same colors onto a screen and superimposed. When viewed through a final filter, they would appear as a realistic color image to the viewer.
A trained chemist and artist, Prokudin-Gorsky began creating tricolor photos after studying with German photochemistry professor Adolf Miethe. Tsar Nicholas II was so impressed by Prokudin-Gorsky’s work, including his famous portrait of Leo Tolstoy, that he commissioned the photographer to take pictures all over Russia. Though he fled Russia after the October Revolution, the negatives he took with him that weren’t confiscated were eventually purchased by the U.S. Library of Congress in 1948 and published in 1980.
Sart woman in purdah in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, ca. 1910. Until the Russian revolution of 1917, “Sart” was the name for Uzbeks living in Kazakhstan
Russian children sit on the side of a hill near a church and bell tower near White Lake, in Russia, 1909
Peasants harvesting hay in 1909. From the album “Views along the Mariinskii Canal and river system, Russian Empire”
On the Sim River, a shepherd boy. Photo taken in 1910, from the album “Views in the Ural Mountains, survey of industrial area, Russian Empire”
General view of the Nikolaevskii Cathedral from southwest in Mozhaisk in 1911
General view of the wharf at Mezhevaya Utka, 1912
Isfandiyar Jurji Bahadur, Khan of the Russian protectorate of Khorezm (Khiva, now a part of modern Uzbekistan), full-length portrait, seated outdoors, ca. 1910
Laying concrete for the dam’s sluice, 1912. Workers and supervisors amid preparations for pouring cement for sluice dam foundation across the Oka River near Beloomut
Molding of an artistic casting (Kasli Iron Works), 1910.
Nomadic Kirghiz on the Golodnaia Steppe in present-day Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, ca. 1910
General view of Artvin (now in Turkey) from the small town of Svet, ca. 1910
Factory in Kyn, Russia, belonging to Count S.A. Stroganov, 1912
Alternators made in Budapest, Hungary, in the power generating hall of a hydroelectric station in Iolotan (Eloten), Turkmenistan, on the Murghab River, ca. 1910
A woman is seated in a calm spot on the Sim River, part of the Volga watershed in 1910
An Armenian woman in national costume poses for Prokudin-Gorskii on a hillside near Artvin (in present day Turkey)
A water-carrier in Samarkand (present-day Uzbekistan), ca. 1910
A switch operator poses on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, near the town of Ust Katav on the Yuryuzan River in 1910
A man and woman pose in Dagestan, ca. 1910
A group of women in Dagestan, ca. 1910
A group of Jewish children with a teacher in Samarkand, (in modern Uzbekistan), ca. 1910
A general view of Sukhumi, Abkhazia and its bay, seen sometime around 1910 from Cherniavskii Mountain
A boy leans on a wooden gatepost in 1910. From the album “Views in the Ural Mountains, survey of industrial area, Russian Empire”
A boy sits in the court of Tillia-Kari mosque in Samarkand, present-day Uzbekistan, ca. 1910
A chapel sits on the site where the city of Belozersk was founded in ancient times, photographed in 1909
A dog rests on the shore of Lake Lindozero in 1910. From the album “Views along the Murmansk Railway, Russian Empire”