Local Color

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In the age of Instagram, the work of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii looks utterly contemporary. Never mind that the chemist-turned-photographer was documenting vanished scenes of rural agricultural life at the sunset of czarist Russia. The main subject of his travelogues was color, which he captured in a palette of saturated blues, searing pinks, and acid yellows. Nostalgia: The Russian Empire of Czar Nicholas II, published this month by Gestalten, erases any notion that the past is always black-and-white.

The photographs were recently restored and digitized by the Library of Congress, which acquired the images from the photographer’s sons in 1948. In 60-odd years of storage, some of the plates were cracked or otherwise damaged, leaving many of the images shot through with great bursts of color and layered geometric shapes. The archivists chose to preserve the mistakes, which add an abstract veneer to already surreally hued scenes and offer clues to Prokudin-Gorskii’s process. “It’s not about erasing these signs of time,” says Estelle Blaschke, a photography historian who wrote the book’s preface. “It’s more about keeping them.”

In 1909, Prokudin-Gorskii was tasked by Czar Nicholas II with monumentalizing Russia’s vast empire in images, and he traveled extensively for six years documenting landscapes, people, and industry. The technique he used—shooting the same subject through three different color filters and later projecting the resulting images together as one—was not new, but he was among the first to take it out of the studio and into the field. His work was crucial in refining three-layer projection and developing emulsions that were more sensitive to the full spectrum. As an artist and scientist, Prokudin-Gorskii was testing the boundaries of the new photographic medium, even as his relationship with his powerful patron and the sensibilities of the time pushed his aesthetics toward spectacle. “He was aware he had this audience in Nicholas II,” Blaschke says. “In order to keep the project going, he had to please the eye.”

To read the rest of this article, purchase the October 2012 issue of Print, or download a PDF version.