The First Color Portrait of Leo Tolstoy, and Other Amazing Color Photos of Czarist Russia (1908)


A good few peo­ple object­ed to a recent project that col­orized old pho­tos of Walt Whit­man, Char­lie Chap­lin, Helen Keller, Mark Twain, and oth­er his­tor­i­cal char­ac­ters. Leave them alone! they grumped. The past, they want­ed left in black and white. But this is not so eas­i­ly done when some photos—whether of august per­son­ages like Leo Tol­stoy above, or of ordi­nary anony­mous peas­ants below—were always processed in col­or. The Tol­stoy image dates from 1908, two years before his death, but the process is much old­er, and suc­cess­ful col­or pho­tographs, not sim­ply hand-paint­ed col­oriza­tions, go back at least to the Lumiere Broth­ers’ Autochromes from the late 19th cen­tu­ry.

Russian Workers

The method that gave us Tol­stoy in col­or involved tak­ing three photographs—with a red, a green, and a blue filter—then pro­ject­ing the result­ing prints through fil­ters of the same col­or. It’s a pro­ce­dure that dates to Scot­tish sci­en­tist James Clerk Maxwell’s 1861 exper­i­ments, which put to the test sev­er­al ear­li­er the­o­ries. The pho­tographs you see here are the work of sci­en­tist and inven­tor Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky, who had per­fect­ed the pro­jec­tion method to such a degree that—as he wrote in a let­ter to Tol­stoy ask­ing him to pose—he only need­ed “from 1 to 3 sec­onds to take the pho­to­graph.” Thus it would not be “over­ly tire­some” for the soon-to-be eighty-year-old nov­el­ist.

Tol­stoy, of course, was a nation­al insti­tu­tion, and had war­rant­ed an ear­li­er attempt at a col­or por­trait by an anony­mous ama­teur to whom Prokudin-Gorsky refers in his let­ter of request. The first attempt, the inven­tor implies, was a botched job. Billing him­self as a spe­cial­ist in “pho­tog­ra­phy ‘in nat­ur­al col­ors,’” the self-con­fi­dent entre­pre­neur assured the writer he could pro­duce “excel­lent results” with “accu­rate col­ors.” “My col­ored pro­jec­tions,” he wrote, “are known in both Europe and in Rus­sia.” Prokudin-Gorsky was received and giv­en two days to take sev­er­al col­or pho­tographs, though whether the oth­ers have sur­vived, I do not know. We do know that the por­trait appeared in the August, 1908 issue of The Pro­ceed­ings of the Russ­ian Tech­ni­cal Soci­ety as “the first Russ­ian col­or pho­to­por­trait.” The jour­nal offered the image in trib­ute to Tolstoy’s upcom­ing 80th birth­day cel­e­bra­tion, writ­ing:

Our peri­od­i­cal, as a pure­ly tech­ni­cal one, can­not hon­or this ven­er­a­ble rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Russ­ian thought and word with spe­cial arti­cles. Desir­ing, how­ev­er, to take part in the gen­er­al fes­tiv­i­ties, the edi­to­r­i­al staff […] decid­ed to pub­lish in this, its August issue, the newest por­trait of Tol­stoy, which is the dernier mot in pho­to­graph­ic tech­nol­o­gy. The por­trait was tak­en on loca­tion and in nat­ur­al col­ors, achieved through tech­ni­cal meth­ods alone, with­out any use of the artist’s brush or tool.

Prokudin-Gorsky expressed his grat­i­tude to the nov­el­ist by mail­ing him a pho­to­graph­ic peri­od­i­cal con­tain­ing “many pic­tures pro­duced in my work­shops from my pho­tographs.” Per­haps the oth­er pho­tos we see here were con­tained in that jour­nal. Prokudin-Gorsky had every rea­son to be proud of his work, and the Russ­ian Tech­ni­cal Soci­ety every rea­son to endorse it. The pic­tures are stun­ning.

1911 Cathedral

Some of the pho­tographs, like the Tol­stoy por­trait, have a painter­ly, almost impres­sion­is­tic qual­i­ty. Oth­ers, like the 1911 vil­lage scene with the Niko­laevskii Cathe­dral in the dis­tance, have almost the depth of field and fine-grained clar­i­ty of 35mm film. And some, like that of the already car­toon­ish struc­ture below, have an almost hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry CGI qual­i­ty. The method wasn’t perfect—even with such short expo­sures, sub­jects had to remain absolute­ly still. If they moved, the result was an eerie dou­ble expo­sure effect you see in the mid­dle dis­tance of the field work­ers pho­tographed above. But over­all, these pho­tographs sim­ply aston­ish in their crisp­ness and fideli­ty.

Russian Mill

You can see many more of Prokudin-Gorsky’s images at this online gallery, which includes over a dozen ear­ly-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry pho­tos of Russ­ian labor­ers, land­scapes, and self por­traits. Prokudin-Gorsky’s work also pre­serves images of var­i­ous East­ern Euro­pean peo­ples in tra­di­tion­al dress—like the final Emir of Bukhara, now Uzbek­istan, below in 1910. Many of these groups were on the verge of cul­tur­al extinc­tion in the com­ing years of Sovi­et impe­ri­al­ism. Unwit­ting­ly, Prokudin-Gorsky man­aged to beau­ti­ful­ly cap­ture the very end of tsarist Rus­sia, most poignant­ly sym­bol­ized for so many Rus­sians by their aged lit­er­ary hero, whose birth­day we cel­e­brate again today. Google decid­ed to do so in full col­or as well, with fan­cy doo­dles of his major works. You may accuse them of tam­per­ing with the past, but those who find these col­or pho­tographs too mod­ern may need to expand their def­i­n­i­tion of moder­ni­ty.

Last Emir

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Col­orized Pho­tos Bring Walt Whit­man, Char­lie Chap­lin, Helen Keller & Mark Twain Back to Life

Rare Record­ing: Leo Tol­stoy Reads From His Last Major Work in Four Lan­guages, 1909

Vin­tage Footage of Leo Tol­stoy: Video Cap­tures the Great Nov­el­ist Dur­ing His Final Days

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (6)
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  • Rain,adustbowlstory says:

    Don’t the col­ors look too bright?nOld col­ors were always dusty.

  • John Baptist says:

    fun­ny thing is that anglo-euro­pean racists love to talk about peo­ples old cul­ture but they nev­er peep into their mod­ern or old racist cul­ture them­selves? There got to be some sick­ness of the brain defin­ing this?

  • John Baptist says:

    fun­ny thing is that anglo-euro­pean racists love to talk about peo­ples old cul­ture but they nev­er peep into their mod­ern or old racist cul­ture them­selves? There got to be some sick­ness of the brain defin­ing this?

  • Sofia Maria Wright says:

    A great work done on the colour aspect giv­ing a vivid win­dow on Rus­sia.

  • Hal O'Brien says:

    Old film emul­sions and paints repro­duced col­ors as dusty. Whether they were dusty to the naked eye is a dif­fer­ent ques­tion.

    Con­sid­er fuchsia/magenta. As a dye, it does back to 1859, well before any­one could real­ly repro­duce it in images.

  • Chris Harris says:

    I think this is a prej­u­dice born of the fad­ing of much colour film as opposed to 3‑ngative process­es. Why should the past have been any more dull than the pesent? Some nat­ur­al dye colours were dull, but not all. Any­way, skin tones are a ref­er­ence.

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