Some striking colour portrait photographs by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. In some ways they look like they could have been taken last week, but they were actually all made between 1907 and 1915, just before WWI and the Russian Revolution. The splendid example above is of Alim Khan (1880-1944) the Emir of Bukhara, in 1911. Bukhara was a vassal state of the Russian Empire, though the Emir had absolute authority within its borders. It was absorbed by the Soviet Union in 1920, and Alim Khan fled to Afghanistan.
There’s just something about seeing these long-dead people in colour that connects us to them, and to history in general, in way that hardly any monochrome image can achieve. To make them, Prokudin-Gorskii developed a system of exposing three glass plate negatives rapidly in succession, with a red filter, a green, and finally a blue. These three monochrome negatives could then be projected through a lantern similarly equipped with matching coloured filters to create a full colour image. The photos shown here have been reconstructed digitally by the US Library of Congress using the same principles, which will be familiar to anybody who uses Photoshop or any similar image editing software. Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944) left Russia in 1918 after the Imperial family was murdered, settling in France via Norway and England. The Library of Congress bought the negatives from P-G’s heirs in 1948. Read more about Prokudin-Gorskii and see more images on the LOC site.
I’ve said it before, but it’s also a crime that modern day globalised clothing is rarely half as interesting, individual and vibrant as some of the amazing getups and colour schemes recorded in images that are only about a century old and yet depict a world that’s now almost completely lost to us. I don’t think anybody should romanticise what poor people and dissidents endured in Tsarist Russia, or mourn the demise of colonialism, nationalism or imperialism, but some very valuable things were also lost along with them.