Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorsky: A Selection from the Collection “The Splendors of Russia in Natural Color”—Color Photographs from the Years 1905–1916

Fifth exhibition of Šechtl & Voseček Museum of Photography.


Photographs from opening day

It was an honor for us to invite the following important guests to the opening of our exhibition on 28 th February, 2006:

Daria Kosilova, 12 years old, came from Pervouralsk, near Ekaterinburg in Russia, to sing Russian songs at our opening. (See Ekaterinburg photographed by Prokudin-Gorsky, 1910)

Pavel Scheufler, historian of photography, from Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague

Lynn E. Brooks, retired head of Digital Scan Center, U. S. Library of Congress, came from Lynchburg, Virginia, USA

We have been pleasantly surprised by the interest in Prokudin-Gorsky's work. At the opening of the exhibition, we had over 200 guests.

Dr. Victor Minachin, of the Russian Academy of Sciences, prepared two great posters describing the technique of color photography used by Prokudin-Gorsky. Dr Minachin intended to be with us for the opening of the exhibition, but sadly, due to illness, this was not possible.

As a very pleasant surprise to us, the Orthodox Church in Tábor has loaned us an icon for the exhibition.

At ground level are photographs mostly from European Russia.

On basement level are photographs from Siberia, Daghestan, Georgia and Central Asia.
(napsal Dr. Viktor Minachin, Ruská akademie věd)

Prokudin-Gorsky and his Place in the History of Three-Color Photography.

(written by Dr. Viktor Minachin, Russian Academy of Sciences and Restavrator-M Restoration Center, Moscow)
Louis Ducos du Hauron (1837–1920).

The technique of three-color photography was historically the first practical method to capture color photographic images. It was first used for practical photography by Louis Ducos du Hauron (1837–1920) who patented his technique in 1868 in France.

The idea proposed and tested earlier by James Clark Maxwell was to make three separate black and white negatives through three colored filters. The result was a triple black and white imagecalled color separations. Ducos du Hauron made his first color separations on three separate sheets of paper. The sensitivity of emulsion to the red part of the spectrum was so low that he had to expose the scene through the red (or rather orange) filter for hours.

Three-color camera designed by A. Miethe and produced by Bermpohl Company. Prokudin-Gorsky used camera of this type.
Glass negative taken by Prokudin-Gorsky with this type of camera.
Around the turn of the 20th century an important advance was made by Professors Vogel (1834–1898) and Miethe (1862–1927) in Germany who significantly improved the sensibility of the emulsion to the red light. Miethe also developed a very practical design of the triple-color camera which used a negative glass plate 8 by 24 cm.
Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorsky (1863–1944)

In 1902–1904 a Russian scientist and photographer Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky (1863–1944) worked at Miethe's laboratory and fully mastered the technique of Dreifarbenphotographie nach der Natur. After this he devoted his life to further developing this technology as well as to creating the collection of the Splendors of Russia in Natural Colors. Most of his color photographs were taken between 1904 and 1916.

Prokudin-Gorsky emigrated from Russia in 1918 and later his family was able to bring the major part of the collection of glass negatives to France. In 1948 the collection was purchased by the U.S. Library of Congress. Since then 1902 glass plates are preserved in perfect order and constitute the largest surviving collection of triple black and white negatives in the world.

Prokudin-Gorsky - What Kind of Color Images Was He Able to See at His Time.

(written by Dr. Viktor Minachin, Russian Academy of Sciences)

The sad irony of the technique of the Three-Color Photography was that Prokudin-Gorsky himself never saw the entire collection of his images in color. Most of the surviving images are preserved in the form of triple black and white negatives and only rarely as historic color prints or slides which in any case are no match to present day color photographs.

At Prokudin-Gorsky's time several techniques were used to create a color image from triple black and white negatives.

Triple-Color Projection. Illustration by Dr. Victor Minachin
Goertz Triple-Color Projector. Prokudin Gorsky probably used a similar type of projector for his color demonstrations to the Russian Tsar.
Triple-color projection: A contact triple black and white positive was printed on a glass plate and then projected through a special triple projector. Each of the three positives was projected on the screen through a different filter.
Prokudin-Gorsky Carbro (carbon-bromide) print.

Carbro Process: Three bromide paper enlargments were produced from the three separation negatives. Each of the prints was passed through a chemical solution with gelatin pigment. The silver bromide image produced corresponding fixed image in the gelatin pigment, and after rinsing off the non-fixed gelatin, three images were obtained in the three colors. These three images were combined on a paper mounting, carefully aligned, and the result was a color photograph in natural colors. This was a very painstaking, complex work, which demanded absolute accuracy at every step. Each copy took Prokudin-Gorsky two to three days of work time, and it was, of course, expensive. But the results were very durable.

Prokudin-Gorsky also published color inserts in each issue of the Fotograf-Liubitel (An Amateur Photographer), a monthly journal he was Editor-in-Chief of in 1906–1909. The printing cliches were produced by Prokudin-Gorsky himself. In September 1908 issue of Fotograf-Liubitel Prokudin-Gorsky published his famous photograph of Leo Tolstoy.

Extract from the letter written by S.M. Prokudin-Gorsky to Leo Tolstoy in 1908.

(Discovered and published by Svetlana Garanina. Full English online version

Leo Tolstoy, 1908, color litographic print by Prokudin-Gorsky
Dear Lev Nikolaevich,

Not long ago I had the occasion to develop a color photographic plate which someone had taken of you (I forget the person's name). The result was extremely bad, since, apparently, the photographer was not well acquainted with his task.

Photography in natural colors is my specialty, and it is possible that you might have come across my name by chance in print. At the present time, after many years of work, I have been able to achieve an excellent reproduction of images in true colors. My color slide projections are as well known in Europe as they are in Russia.

At this time, now that the process of taking photographs using my method and my plates requires from one to three seconds, I permit myself to ask your permission for me to visit for one or two days (keeping in mind the state of your health and the weather), thereby in order to take several color pictures of you and your spouse...

It seems to me that, by reproducing your image in true color and its surroundings, I will perform a service to the whole world. These images are everlasting - they do not change. No painted reproduction can achieve such results.

Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorsky

Modern reproductions of photographs by Prokudin-Gorskij

(written by Jan Hubička in cooperation with Lynn E. Brooks, Walter Frankhauser, Victor Minachin and John Titchener)

Classical methods of reproducing three color photography are demanding and require a lot of skill, time and expense. These factors kept the world from seeing Prokudin-Gorsky images in color. In 1980, the first book of his photographs Photographs for the Tsar: The Pioneering Color Photography of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii by Robert Allshouse was published by Dial Press, New York. A small collection of images from the collection of Prokudin-Gorsky was exhibited for only the first time in 1986 by the US Library of Congress.

Producing color images was greatly simplified with the advent of digital technology. The color images can be composed from scanned negatives in the computer and then printed as color digital photographs. However, as a result of movement by the subject during the time of the three exposures precise registration is also necessary. A new stage of the research on the collection was started in the early 1990s by the U. S. Library of Congress, Dr. Victor Minachin (Russian Academy of Sciences) and others.

For the first exhibition prepared using modern methods, professional photographer Walter Frankhauser, contracted by the Library of Congress, developed a method called digichromatography, to produce 122 photographs. In his method, performed in Photoshop*, the digital scan of the original negative with photos made through blue, red and green filters (left) is split into three separate layers from which the final color composite will be generated. After overlaying and properly coloring the layers, the color photograph appears.

The layers are aligned and colored appropriately forming the RGB (Red, Green, Blue) color composite. The registration process is the most difficult step.

The composite is cropped to eliminate all but the photographic area shared in common by all three layers. The cropped color composite is adjusted overall to create the proper contrast, appropriate highlight and shadow detail, and optimal color balance. Final adjustments and retouching may be applied to specific, localized areas of the composite color image. This will minimize defects associated with incorrect exposure, aging of the emulsion, or damage of the original glass plate.

The Library of Congress exhibiton, "The Empire That Was Russia", was revolutionary not only in the quality of the color reproduction, but also in making the whole archive of 1,902 negatives available on the internet in high resolution. This little known collection of Prokudin-Gorsky's work has quickly gained popularity, and a number of new projects have been started, to create new color composites. One of these is our exhibition here.

The full collection was exhibited in Moscow in 2003. The color renderings were produced automatically by software developed by the Russian Academy of Sciences and Restavrator-M Restoration Center in Moscow (Dr. Victor Minachin). This was historically the first complete exhibition of the collection. In 2004, the US Library of Congress further extended the archive, by automatically generating color composites, using software developed by Blaise Agüera y Arcas, Princeton University.

* Photoshop is registered trademark of Adobe Systems, Inc.

Color photography

(written by Jan Hubička in cooperation with Pavel Scheufler and John Titchener)
James Clerk Maxwell and Thomas Sutton, tartan ribbon, 1861
Luis Ducos du Hauron, (French city) Agen, 1877
The discovery, by physicist James Maxwell in 1861, that color photographs could be formed by using red, green and blue filters (RGB) was the beginning of the development of color photography. Famous three-color photograph made by James Clerk Maxwell from year 1861 was really just demonstration of his theory. In 1868 Luis Ducos du Hauron reached practical results.
Additive method of combining colors
Subtractive method of combining colors
Most subsequent techniques still produce color either additively, by combining red, green and blue light, or subtractively, by eliminating individual colors from white light via pigments of complementary colors (cyan, magenta and yellow).
Recording different wavelengths of light in Lippmann photography into (greatly enlarged) ultrafine grainded photographic emulsion by reflection from high quality mirror (on the right). Latent image is shown as black dots.

In 1891, the physicist Gabriel Lippmann invented an entirely new method of so-called direct color photography, where a glass plate was coated with a transparent and ultrafinegrainded silver emulsion. The uncoated side was exposed to the light, with the emulsion in contact with a reflecting surface such as mercury. The incident light was reflected back on itself, causing interference. This established a standing wave in the emulsion, at half the wavelength of the incident light, which reacted with the photosensitive emulsion.

Viewing Lippmann photograh must be done from right place.

The deposited silver then reflected light at various multiples of the original wavelength, giving rise to bright colors; similar in principle to the way colors appear on a soap-bubble. Unfortunately the technique was very complex, and required special equipment for viewing, so it never came into general use. RGB photography won because it was adequate for most purposes. Gabriel Lippman however did win a Nobel prize for color photography in 1908 and his method became the basis for modern holography.

John Joly: Lilie a anthurium, 1877, Kodak Museum, Harrow)
Color patterns used for Joly process.
A different method is to expose black and white photographic emulsion through a filter with colored mosaic. When the resulting black and white diapositive is viewed through the same filter, the resulting picture is in color, in the same way as in the three color projection. This method was first patented by Joly in 1893. His method however led to photographs with a clearly visible color grid (roughly 200 lines per inch).
Portrait of Anna Šechtlová made by Josef Jindřich Šechtl using Autochrome plate approx. in 1909.
Detail of color mosaic.

The Lumiere brothers introduced the first commercially successful process of color photography. Their Autochrome process was patented in 1903, and dominated the market for the next 30 years. The basic principle was identical to the Joly process, except that the mosaic was constructed by using microscopic colored starch grains, in a layer of bees-wax, directly onto the photographic plate.

At the same time, there were interesting developments in color movie film. While projecting a movie, it is easy to project color separations, by using alternating color filters in the front of the projector. Such a method had been used since 1908 (Kinemacolor). Prokudin-Gorsky is known to have experimented with color film in 1912, and his methods were probably similar. In 1922, Technicolor introduced a photo-mechanical process of printing color film, (similar to the color Carbro prints used by Prokudin-Gorsky), using dyes from separate black-and-white films, recorded through red, green and blue filters. This was the dominant technique for producing color film in Hollywood, until the 1950's.

Kodachrome photo of fire-hydrant in New York, 1976, photographed by Jan Hubička.
The real boom of color photography had to wait for modern color film. The first one, Kodachrome, introduced by Kodak in 1935, is still the most stable color material on the market. It contains three emulsions, each sensitive to different light (red, green and blue). During the complex development process, the gray silver is replaced by color pigments (cyan, magenta and yellow), resulting in a color diapositive.
Jiří Voskovec, 1963, photographed by Marie Šechtlová. The photograph, on negative Orwo (one of numerous clones of Agfacolor), is also a good example of the limited life of the material.

Today, the most popular color films are based on Agfacolor-Neu, introduced in 1936. In Agfacolor-Neu, the dyes are directly present in the emulsion, which significantly simplifies the development process as well as the “reinvention” of negative. Agfa also introduced the concept of minilabs, which made the development of films faster. The main problem of Agfacolor is however the limited life of the material.


(excerpts from chronology published on exhibit at U. S. Library of Congress)

Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorsky is born in Murom, Vladimir Province, Russia.
Nikolay Aleksandrovich (Tsar Nicholas II) is born.
Prokudin-Gorsky studies painting at the Imperial Academy of Arts; studies chemistry with D.I. Mendeleyev.
Prokudin-Gorsky continues his studies for two more years in Berlin and Paris.
Prokudin-Gorsky marries Anna Aleksandrovna Lavrova. Apprentices in photochemical laboratories; becomes familiar with the work of Adolf Miethe and Edme Jules Maumene.
Construction begins on Trans-Siberian Railroad.
Early 1890s
Prokudin-Gorsky returns to Russia.
Reign of Tsar Nicholas II.
Prokudin-Gorsky begins to present the technical results of his photographic research to the Fifth Department of the Imperial Russian Technical Society (IRTS). (He would continue these presentations through 1918)
Prokudin-Gorsky publishes the first in a series of works on the technical aspects of photography.
Prokudin-Gorsky exhibits his black and white photography at the Paris Exposition.
Prokudin-Gorsky publishes a booklet about photography with instant hand cameras.
Prokudin-Gorsky compiles photographic material for a large illustrated volume of the Manchurian battlefield.
Prokudin-Gorsky becomes editor of the Petersburg journal Fotograf-liubitel (Amateur Photographer) and serves in this post until 1909. He writes a series of technical articles on the principles of color reproduction.
Prokudin-Gorsky receives the gold medal at the International Exhibition in Antwerp and a medal for Best Work from the Photo Club in Nice for his color photography.
ca 1907
Prokudin-Gorsky envisions and formulates a plan for the photographic survey of the Russian Empire, using a new innovative color-photography system.
Prokudin-Gorsky conducts slide presentations of his color photography innovations for audiences at IRTS, the Petersburg Photographic Society, and elsewhere in St. Petersburg.
May 1908
Prokudin-Gorsky photographs Leo Tolstoy at Yasnaya Poliana.
Prokudin-Gorsky conducts several presentations of his color slide projections; attracts the attention of The Grand Duke Mikhail Aleksandrovich, who facilitates an introduction to Tsar Nicholas II.
Early 1909
Nicholas II invites Prokudin-Gorsky to give a slide presentation to the Imperial court at Tsarskoye Selo. Prokudin-Gorsky receives official support to implement his plan to photographically document the Russian Empire.
summer 1909
Prokudin-Gorsky completes photographic trips along the Mariinskii Canal system and industrial areas of the Ural mountains.
March 1910
First formal viewing at court by the Tsar of Prokudin-Gorsky's work.
Prokudin-Gorsky photographs the Volga Region.
January 1911
Prokudin-Gorsky delivers lecture at the Academy of Arts in Petersburg entitled Monuments of Antiquity Along the Mariinskii Canal System and the Upper Volga, and a few words about the Significance of Color Photography.
Prokudin-Gorsky documents the areas involved in the Napoleonic campaigns in Russia.
Prokudin-Gorsky documents the Kamsko-Tobol'skii Water Route and the Oka River.
Official support for Prokudin-Gorsky's documentary project is terminated.
Prokudin-Gorsky founds the Biochrome Company, which markets services in both color photography and photographic printing (black and white and color)
Official support for Prokudin-Gorsky's documentary project is briefly resumed; Prokudin-Gorsky documents the Murmansk Railroad.
November 1917
Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.
July 1918
Execution of Tsar Nicholas II and his family, in Ekaterinburg.
summer 1918
Prokudin-Gorsky leaves Russia for Norway, then England.
Prokudin-Gorsky writes a series of articles for the British Journal of Photography and issued a patent for a camera for colour cinematography.
Prokudin-Gorsky moves to France
Second World War
Prokudin Gorsky dies in France

Co-workers on the exhibition:

Lynn E. Brooks answered numerous questions about the collection, helped to write posters, and greatly motivated us in this work. Verna Curtis contacted or gave us contacts to many other co-authors of the Prokudin-Gorsky exhibition in U. S. Library of Congress. Walter Frankhauser prepared 122 color reproductions for the Library of Congress exhibition, 62 of them are used in our exhibition. He also helped to clarify poster on modern reproductions. Eva Hubičková framed number of photographs and co-worked on choosing the photographs, writing captions and finishing the posters. Jan Hubička prepared 45 color reproductions for exhibition, translated to Czech and extended English captions, wrote posters on history of color photography and modern reproductions, and co-worked on chosing the photographs. Jiří Kohout did intensive research leading to adding information to the captions, translated original text from Russian language and corrected Czech spelling of Russian names. Harold Leich wrote captions for 60 photographs for Library of Congress exhibition that are base for our captions and provided a  lot of additional background. Dr. Victor Minachin wrote posters on three-color photography and historic three-color projection and printing, created the illustration of color projection used on the poster and invitation card, and clarified a number of mysteries concerning captions in Prokudin-Gorsky collection. Pavel Scheufler provided reproductions of photographs and corrected the posters on history of color photography, and made it possible to display color photograph of Czech Coronation Crown. Marie Šechtlová and Marie Michaela Šechtlová co-worked on choosing the photographs, writing captions, invitation card and posters and organized the work on exhibition. Jean Swetchine sent us a  lot of additional information about his grandfather (Prokudin-Gorsky). Škrla familly prepared the exhibition rooms. John Titchener and Eleanor Schlee translated majority of texts to English and signficantly helped to improve their clarity. Jakub Troják designed typography of invitation card, postcards and posters.

We also want to acknowledge the use of the published work of Professor Svetlana Garanina, who since 1968 has been researching the history of Prokudin-Gorsky's life and work and who has discovered and published many important archival documents and research papers on which our current knowledge of his biography and of the history of his work is based.

We are very grateful to everyone who helped to realize this exhibition. All the work was done completely voluntarily without any financial compensation.

The exhibition is possible only because US Library of Congress has preserved, digitized in high resolution, and released into the public domain, all the Prokudin-Gorsky negatives. We also gratefully acknowledge the support we have received from František Dědič and the Town of Tábor.