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Some Really Old Color Photos (Prokudin-Gorskii)

Discussion in 'General Discussion' started by cmpalmer, May 4, 2005.

  1. cmpalmer


    Jan 27, 2005
    Huntsville, AL
    TKO's posts of the Forbidden City in the Architecture forum reminded me of these pictures that I ran across a few years ago. I didn't know how many of y'all have seen them, but I find them extremely fascinating.

    First, my favorite picture:


    Cool, huh? This picture was taken in 1910...

    A Russian photographer named Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii built a special camera and projector to take color pictures. The camera used three glass plate negatives and took three exposures through colored filters. A projector then overlayed the images through filtered lenses to project a color image. The entire collection of slides were acquired at some point by the Library of Congress and sat in their collections for years until someone came up with the idea of digitially scanning them and using Photoshop to color correct and clean up the images, some of which had faded. There are hundreds of pictures available through the LOC web site (http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/empire/) along with a description of the technique and scans of the original BW plates.

    What amazed me, beyond the technical aspects of restoring these pictures, was how they affected me emotionally. When I think about late 19th/early 20th century life, I tend to think in terms of grainy black and white photos, faded sepia prints, and old movies. I know, of course, that the past looked like the present, but old photos and paintings focus your imagination and strongly color your perceptions. Seeing these 100 year old photographs caused a shift in my perception and made the past seem more "real". My wife uses these when she is teaching about the Russian Revolution and World War I (she is a high school history teacher) and it always amazes her students and helps them understand that the people in the history book were real live human beings and not just academic facts and trivia to be memorized.

    This is another one of my favorites (Samarkand, 1911):


    To me, this is the opposite of using Photoshop techniques to make new photos look old and it provides a powerful illustration of how our perceptions of very subtle clues in images influence our reaction to them.
  2. I got to see this exhibition at the Library of Congress when it was there and in person, the photographs are astounding especially when you consider that they were taken in the early 1900's and the theory of RGB was hardly known.

    It's also fascinating in that many of the buildings depicted in the photographs are no longer there and a testament to the grace and beauty of Russian architecture.


    Thanks for bringing this up, Gorskii is one of my all time favorites!

  3. What beautiful photos! It's hard to believe they are nearly a century old. I particularly like the expression on the face of the man. Thanks for sharing them.

  4. cmpalmer


    Jan 27, 2005
    Huntsville, AL
  5. Yes, these images are very interesting. Thanks for sharing the.
  6. Iliah


    Jan 29, 2005
    My Grandfather told me that Gorsky learned that technique in Italy :) 
    Unfortunately, the passion of his teachers was not so deep as his; and they lacked support from their Government. Russian Tsar Nikolai II was a photographer himself.
  7. cmpalmer


    Jan 27, 2005
    Huntsville, AL
    The PDF I linked to above said that since he was an official photographer for the Tsar, he took many pictures of the royal family, but that he was not able to take those prints (or his camera and projector) when he fled Russia to France during the revolution. Many artifacts from the Tsar's palace were stored away, but these plates have never turned up, but there is hope that they weren't destroyed. The LOC's plates were stored in an attic in Paris for 20 something years and weren't discovered/removed until after WWII.
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