Saturday, March 14, 2009

Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944) - Early Colour Photography and the Russian Empire

Fabric merchant, Samarkand. Merchant's display includes silk, cotton, and wool fabrics as well as a few carpets. A framed page of the Koran hangs at the top of the stall (1905-1915)

From 1905 to 1915, Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii recorded the Russian Empire - in colour.

His early colour photographic technique involved taking three black and white photos of a subject - each with a different tinted filter - and then combining the three to form a colour image.

This extraordinary enterprise has recently been made accessible to the general online public by Walter Frankhauser, who was contracted by the Library of Congress to restore 1900 of Prokudin-Gorskii's images. His results can be seen at The Empire That Was Russia. More of the photographer's work can be seen at the Russian site Сергей Михайлович Прокудин-Горский.

Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii - Self Portrait

The photographs are breath-takingly beautiful - the composition of each seems so 'right' and without being forced or calculated. All clear, spaciously 'set out', uncluttered with excess detail.

I've organized a selection of images into five categories: people, technology, work and its consequences, buildings and city and landscapes.


Alim Khan (1880-1944) - Emir of Bukhara (1911)

Jewish Children with Teacher in Samarkand (1909-1915)

Dagestani couple posed outdoors for portrait (1904)

Turkmen man posing with camel loaded with sacks, probably of grain or cotton, Central Asia (1905-15)

Tea factory in Chakva. Chinese foreman Lau-Dzhen-Dzhau (1905-1915)

Turkman woman by yurt (1911)

Sunni Muslim man in traditional dress and headgear with sheathed dagger at his side. Dagestan (1905-1915)


Alternators made in Budapest, Hungary, in the power generating hall of a hydroelectric station in Iolotan on the Murghab River (1909)

Cotton textile mill interior with machines producing cotton thread, in Bayram-Ali (1911)

Russian steam locomotive Aa-76 (1910)

Metal Truss Railroad Bridge on Kama River, near Perm city (1909-1915)

Windmills in Yalutorovsk district of Tobolsk Province, Russia (1915)


Haying, near rest time. Russian Empire. Farm workers standing near farm equipment, taking break (1909)

Method for storing hay Viazovaia Station (1909)

Melon vendor in traditional Central Asian attire at his stand in the marketplace of Samarkand in present-day Uzbekistan (1905-1915)

Work at Bakalskii mine. Family with shovels and horse-drawn carts, working at iron mines in Bakaly Kills (1910)

Tea Weighing Station, Chakva tea farm and processing plant just north of Batumi, close to the Black Sea coast of Georgia (1905-1915)

Production of artistic casting in the Kasli Iron Works in heart of the Ural Mountains between the cities of Ekaterinburg and Cheliabinsk (1909-1915)

Monks at work. Planting potatoes. Gethsemane Monastery (1909)


Shakh-i Zindeh Mosque in Samarkand (1905-1915)

Stork nests on unidentified religious building, probably in Bukhara (1911)

Church of the Assumption of the Mother of God. Belozersk, Russian Empire (1909)

Borodino Station (1911)

City and Landscapes

Dvinsk Daugavpils, Novoye Stroyeniye neighbourhood (1912)

General view of the town of Torzhok in the early 20th century

Staritsa, Russia (1912)

Tobolsk from north, from the bell tower of the Church of Transfiguration Preobrazhensky Sobor Russia (1912)

Thanks to Jason M for emailing me the URL of a blog - which started me on the search for more of Prokudin-Gorskii's images!


  1. Beautiful images of Russian "empire" at the turn of the 20th century!
    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Sad to say that 90+ years later the quality of photography seldom reaches this level.

    Alan down in Florida

  3. hey alan

    hate being a luddite, but must agree with you!

    BTW, i changed the post a bit - beginning with Prokudin-Gorskii's photo was such a dreary and conventional beginning!
    more later


  4. hey greg

    glad you liked them

    often these kinds of photos are interesting rather than having heaps of artistic worth - but a double whammy for Prokudin-Gorskii!


  5. Most excellent! The world is a little bit better off because the organ between your ears desires the pleasures that it does. I look forward to few things, your blog is one of them because such things as Prokudin-Gorskii's images would be unknown to me otherwise.


  6. hey mike

    very nice of you indeed - for the appreciation - i knew nothing of him either till jason nudged me in that direction.

    the post is somewhat reminiscent of the albert kahn post -

    i like to think (or have the vain hope) that i'm driven by both organs - equally? depends on my libido of the moment

    i find myself going back to Prokudin-Gorskii's images again and again - a sure sign they are more than of momentary interest

    good to hear from you


  7. These are incredible pictures. I can't believe how clear and sharp they are. It just goes to prove that every culture has beauty, charm and everyone on earth leans toward artistic expression. What absolutely beautiful villages and towns these are. It is a shame that they are not alway preserved.

  8. hey anon

    yep, they are pretty special!

    this selection of the photographer's work was 'restored' as i mentioned in the post and i guess in pristine condition due in part to to this

    don't many of them look as tho they could've been done yesterday! particularly:

    Alim Khan (1880-1944) - Emir of Bukhara (1911)


    Alternators made in Budapest, Hungary, in the power generating hall of a hydroelectric station in Iolotan on the Murghab River (1909)

    good to hear from you - take care


  9. Thank you for this post! I enjoy all the gorgeous naked guys, of course, but this touches me in a very special way. One of the delights of your blog is never knowing what you're sharing with us on any given day.

    In addition to what others have commented, I'm touched by the poignancy of seeing a world that no longer exists. Being allowed a glimpse of a life so far removed from what's outside my door.

    What a marvelous gift! Thank you.

  10. hey paul in NY

    and i was very touched by your lovely appreciation - thanks a lot

    the poignancy for me is also cos of the turmoil of the impending revolution - just a handful of years away - an event that was to to engulf and destroy so much of what we see in this 1905-15 record

    great to hear from you


  11. yes, they are!

    glad you enjoyed them