Tsarist Russia Comes to Life in Vivid Color Photographs Taken Circa 1905–1915

His­to­ry escapes us. Events that changed the world for­ev­er, or should have, slide out of col­lec­tive mem­o­ry. If we’re point­ing fin­gers, we might point at edu­ca­tion­al sys­tems that fail to edu­cate, or at huge his­tor­i­cal blind spots in mass media. Maybe anoth­er rea­son the recent past fades like old pho­tographs may have to do with old pho­tographs.

The present leaps out at us from our ubiq­ui­tous screens in vivid, high-res­o­lu­tion col­or. We are riv­et­ed to the spec­ta­cles of the moment. Per­haps if we could see his­to­ry in color—or at least the small but sig­nif­i­cant sliv­er of it that has been photographed—we might have some­what bet­ter his­tor­i­cal mem­o­ries. It’s only spec­u­la­tion, who knows? But look­ing at the images here makes me think so.

Although we can date col­or pho­tog­ra­phy back as ear­ly as 1861, when physi­cist James Clerk Maxwell made an exper­i­men­tal print with col­or fil­ters, the process didn’t real­ly come into its own until the turn of the cen­tu­ry. (It wouldn’t be until much lat­er in the 20th cen­tu­ry that mass-pro­duc­ing col­or pho­tographs became fea­si­ble.) One ear­ly mas­ter of the art, Russ­ian chemist and pho­tog­ra­ph­er Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, used Maxwell’s fil­ter process and oth­er meth­ods to cre­ate the images you see here, dat­ing from between 1905 and 1915.

You can see hun­dreds more such images—over 2000, in fact—at the Library of Con­gress’ col­lec­tion, dig­i­tal­ly recre­at­ed from col­or glass neg­a­tives for your brows­ing and down­load­ing plea­sure or his­tor­i­cal research. “I don’t think I’ve ever looked at a pho­to­graph from the past and felt its sub­jects come alive so vivid­ly,” writes Messy Nessy, “as if they’ve almost blinked at me, as if it were just yes­ter­day.”

Clear­ly the cloth­ing, archi­tec­ture, and oth­er mark­ers of the past give away the age of these pic­tures, as does their fad­ed qual­i­ty. But imag­ine this lat­ter evi­dence of time passed as an Instra­gram fil­ter and you might feel like you could have been there, on the farms, church­es, water­ways, gar­dens, forests, city streets, and draw­ing rooms of Impe­r­i­al Rus­sia dur­ing the doomed last years of the Romanovs.

Sev­er­al hun­dred of the pho­tos in the archive aren’t in col­or. Prokudin-Gorskii, notes the LoC, “under­took most of his ambi­tious col­or doc­u­men­tary project from 1909 to 1915.” Even while trav­el­ing around pho­tograph­ing the coun­try­side, he made just as many mono­chrome images. Because of our cul­tur­al con­di­tion­ing and the way we see the world now we are bound to inter­pret black-and-white and sepia-toned prints as more dis­tant and estranged.

Prokudin-Gorskii took his most famous pho­to, a col­or image of Leo Tol­stoy which we’ve fea­tured here before, in 1908. It grant­ed him an audi­ence with the Tsar, who after­ward gave him “a spe­cial­ly equipped rail­road-car dark­room,” Messy Nessy notes, and “two per­mits that grant­ed him access to restrict­ed areas.” After the Rev­o­lu­tion, he fled to Paris, where he died in 1944, just one month after the city’s lib­er­a­tion.

His sur­viv­ing pho­tos, plates, and neg­a­tives had been stored in the base­ment of his Parisian apart­ment build­ing until a Library of Con­gress researcher found and pur­chased them in 1948. His work in col­or, a nov­el­ty at the time, now strikes us in its ordi­nar­i­ness; an aid “for any­one who has ever found it dif­fi­cult to con­nect with his­tor­i­cal pho­tographs.” Still, we might won­der, “what will they think of our pho­tographs in a hun­dred years time?”

I sus­pect a hun­dred years from now, or maybe even 20 or 30, peo­ple will mar­vel at our quaint, prim­i­tive two-dimen­sion­al vision, while strolling around in vir­tu­al 3D recre­ations, maybe chat­ting casu­al­ly with holo­graph­ic, AI-endowed his­tor­i­cal peo­ple. Maybe that tech­nol­o­gy will make it hard­er for the future to for­get us, or maybe it will make it eas­i­er to mis­re­mem­ber.

Enter the Library of Con­gress Prokudin-Gorskii archive here.

via Messy Nessy

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Behold the Very First Col­or Pho­to­graph (1861): Tak­en by Scot­tish Physi­cist (and Poet!) James Clerk Maxwell

Venice in Beau­ti­ful Col­or Images 125 Years Ago: The Rial­to Bridge, St. Mark’s Basil­i­ca, Doge’s Palace & More

The First Pho­to­graph Ever Tak­en (1826)

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

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