The Only Color Picture of Tolstoy, Taken by Photography Pioneer Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky (1908)

The pho­to above depicts Lev Niko­layevich Tol­stoy, bet­ter known in the Eng­lish-speak­ing world as Leo Tol­stoy. It dates from 1908, when he had near­ly all his work behind him: the major nov­els War and Peace and Anna Karen­i­na, of course, but also the acclaimed late book The Death of Ivan Ilyich. His own death, in fact, lay not much more than two years before him. (See footage of the final days of his life here.) This did­n’t offer much of a win­dow of oppor­tu­ni­ty to the chemist Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, who had recent­ly devel­oped a pho­tog­ra­phy process that could cap­ture the great man of let­ters in “true col­or” — and who under­stood that such a por­trait would score a pro­mo­tion­al coup for his inno­va­tion.

“After many years of work, I have now achieved excel­lent results in pro­duc­ing accu­rate col­ors,” Prokudin-Gorsky wrote to Tol­stoy ear­ly that same year. “My col­ored pro­jec­tions are known in both Europe and in Rus­sia. Now that my method of pho­tog­ra­phy requires no more than 1 to 3 sec­onds, I will allow myself to ask your per­mis­sion to vis­it for one or two days (keep­ing in mind the state of your health and weath­er) in order to take sev­er­al col­or pho­tographs of you and your spouse.” After receiv­ing that per­mis­sion, Prokudin-Gorsky spent two days at Yas­naya Polyana, Tol­stoy’s fam­i­ly estate, where he took col­or pic­tures of not just the man him­self but his work­ing quar­ters and the sur­round­ing grounds.

“A few months lat­er, in its August 1908 issue, The Pro­ceed­ings of the Russ­ian Tech­ni­cal Soci­ety ran the fol­low­ing announce­ment describ­ing ‘the first Russ­ian col­or pho­to­por­trait,’ a col­or pho­to­graph of L. N. Tol­stoy,” accord­ing to Tol­stoy Stud­ies Jour­nal. The result­ing fame drew Prokudin-Gorsky an invi­ta­tion to show his work to Tsar Nicholas II, who sub­se­quent­ly fur­nished him with the resources to spend ten years pho­to­graph­i­cal­ly doc­u­ment­ing Rus­sia in col­or. “To this day, nobody knows exact­ly what cam­era Prokudin-Gorsky used,” writes Kai Bernau at Words that Work, “but it was like­ly a large wood­en cam­era with a spe­cial hold­er for a slid­ing glass neg­a­tive plate, tak­ing three sequen­tial mono­chrome pho­tographs, each through a dif­fer­ent col­ored fil­ter.” This appears to be a tech­no­log­i­cal descen­dant of the process devel­oped in the ear­ly eigh­teen-six­ties by Scot­tish physi­cist-poet James Clerk Maxwell, cre­ator of the first col­or pho­to­graph in his­to­ry.

To view that pho­to­graph, Maxwell “pro­ject­ed the three slides using three dif­fer­ent pro­jec­tors, each affixed with the same col­or fil­ter that had been used to pro­duce the slide.” Prokudin-Gorsky, too, had to project his pho­tos, though he did lat­er make col­or prints; “he also pub­lished it, in sig­nif­i­cant num­bers, as a col­lectible post­card,” says Tol­stoy Stud­ies Jour­nal, adding that the ver­sion seen here is a scan of one such post­card. How accu­rate­ly a lith­o­graphed repro­duc­tion like the one above of Tol­stoy rep­re­sents the ‘real’ col­ors of Prokudin-Gorsky’s orig­i­nal pro­ject­ed image is debat­able”; the basic tech­no­log­i­cal dif­fer­ence between “sub­trac­tive” lith­o­g­ra­phy and “addi­tive’ pro­jec­tion means that we can’t be see­ing quite the same pic­ture of Tol­stoy that the Tsar did — but then, it’s a good a like­ness of him as we’re ever going to get.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The His­to­ry of Rus­sia in 70,000 Pho­tos: New Pho­to Archive Presents Russ­ian His­to­ry from 1860 to 1999

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

Russ­ian His­to­ry & Lit­er­a­ture Come to Life in Won­der­ful­ly Col­orized Por­traits: See Pho­tos of Tol­stoy, Chekhov, the Romanovs & More

The Very Last Days of Leo Tol­stoy Cap­tured on Video

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

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

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (1)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.