1909-1915: Colour photographs of Imperial Russia

“The photographs of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944) offer a vivid portrait of a lost world – the Russian Empire on the eve of World War I and the coming revolution. His subjects ranged from the medieval churches and monasteries of old Russia, to the railroads and factories of an emerging industrial power, to the daily life and work of Russia’s diverse population.”

- The Empire that was Russia, Library of Congress

Peasant Girls, 1909

Peasant Girls, 1909

The Emir of Bukhara, 1911

The Emir of Bukhara, 1911

Tea Factory in Chakva.  Chinese Foreman Lau-Dzhen-Dzhau,  ca. 1907-1915

Tea Factory in Chakva. Chinese Foreman Lau-Dzhen-Dzhau, ca. 1907-1915

Melon Vendor, 1911

Melon Vendor, 1911

Group of Jewish Children with a Teacher, 1911

Group of Jewish Children with a Teacher, 1911

A Group of Children, 1909

A Group of Children, 1909

Profile of an Uzbek Woman, ca. 1907-1915

Profile of an Uzbek Woman, ca. 1907-1915

Dagestani Types, ca. 1907-1915

Dagestani Types, ca. 1907-1915

A Sart Old Man, 1911

A Sart Old Man, 1911

Three Generations, 1910

Three Generations, 1910

Turkmen Man Posing with Camel,  ca. 1907-1915

Turkmen Man Posing with Camel, ca. 1907-1915

A Zindan (prison), ca. 1907-1915

A Zindan (prison), ca. 1907-1915

A Settler's Family, ca. 1907-1915

A Settler’s Family, ca. 1907-1915

A Group of Workers Harvesting Tea,  ca. 1907-1915

A Group of Workers Harvesting Tea, ca. 1907-1915

Nomadic Kirghiz, 1911

Nomadic Kirghiz, 1911

Pinkhus Karlinskii. . . Supervisor of  Chernigov Floodgate, 1909

Pinkhus Karlinskii. . . Supervisor of Chernigov Floodgate, 1909

Haying Near the Resting Place, 1909

Haying Near the Resting Place, 1909

Work at the Bakalskii Mine Pit, 1910

Work at the Bakalskii Mine Pit, 1910

On the Handcar Outside Petrozavodsk  on the Murmansk Railway, 1915

On the Handcar Outside Petrozavodsk on the Murmansk Railway, 1915

Monks at Work, 1910

Monks at Work, 1910

Weighing Section, ca. 1907-1915

Weighing Section, ca. 1907-1915

A Method for Storing Hay, 1910

A Method for Storing Hay, 1910

The Village of Kolchedan, 1912

The Village of Kolchedan, 1912

View of Tiflis from the Grounds of Saint David Church, ca. 1907-1915

View of Tiflis from the Grounds of Saint David Church, ca. 1907-1915

View of the City of Tobol'sk from the North from the Bell Tower of the Church of the Transfiguration, 1912

View of the City of Tobol’sk from the North from the Bell Tower of the Church of the Transfiguration, 1912

A Chapel on the Site Where the Old City of Belozersk Stood, 1909

A Chapel on the Site Where the Old City of Belozersk Stood, 1909

View of the Monastery from the Solarium, 1910

View of the Monastery from the Solarium, 1910

General View of the Shakh-i Zinde Mosque, 1911

General View of the Shakh-i Zinde Mosque, 1911

A Stork (a scene in Bukhara), 1911

A Stork (a scene in Bukhara), 1911

Ekaterinin Spring, ca. 1907-1915

Ekaterinin Spring, ca. 1907-1915

19 Responses

  1. Ian Devlin

    What wonderful pictures. The colours are amazing. It does help to capture the people of Russia of that era, outside of the big cities.

    Reply
  2. Eric M

    I think it’s cool that you can see how they were created if you look carefully at subjects that have some movement in them (the river, a baby, a horse’s ears, etc).

    Reply
  3. Mic

    Amazing! I had no idea that there was color photo’s at that time and with such quality. I really enjoyed being taken back in time!

    Reply
  4. Rachel Smith

    These pictures are amazing! They look like they might have been taken yesterday and they show a truly diverse Russia that spanned two continents. It’s wonderful to take a look to a time back where hardly anyone remembers today.

    Reply
  5. Katarina Skupch

    realy great photo`s! I finde also the reflected costume study in it very interesting . … there was no colour photography at the time- the pictures was colored with the brush, or maby thea are recolored later.

    Reply
  6. Chad H

    They had color photography at this time. Looking at the picture with the running water it looks like they used the process (called subtractive color) of taking three pictures with a different colored filter (red green and blue) over the lens. When the three negatives were combined it formed a color photo. As you can see it was time consuming but took wonderful color photos.

    Here is a link showing how it is done one and using one of the photos from this series.

    Color Photography

    Emir of Bukhara

    Reply
  7. Vlad

    to Katarina Skupch. There was color photography in that time, these were not coloured with brush, but taking three different color lence photos un making them like one and result is – colour photography. Read about that great scientist from Russia, who did it – Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. I have collection of about 1200 pictures by him, but most of them black&white, but part is colour.
    Btw, these pictures are stunning, for me it was like i walked there with time machine, i breath air from nearly 100 years ago, speaked with people there… just in my imagination.

    Reply
  8. Kshatrya

    It’s remarkable to see the vibrant colour of the clothing. In my minds eye, the people of that time wear mute, drab colours. It’s lovely to see how wrong I was.

    Reply
  9. Fifi834

    Amazing pictures. I can’t help it, but I still prefer the original b&w photography. Beautiful, nonetheless.

    Reply
  10. Marie

    I’ve seen many more of this collection of wonderful photos, and wish, since its’ what this site DOES, that all were collected together here! Also, when I’ve seen them before, they were always labelled as to subject matter. For example, about 2/3 of the way down, a small group of boys, dressed in beautiful ethnic clothing, around an old man with a book, is usually labelled as Jewish children with their teacher (I’d assume the Rabbi teaching the Torah to the boys, as was standard).
    I’d think getting ALL of the photos, and labelled, would be great, since it does help so much to know what they’re about, and the info is out there.

    See: http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/2010/08/russia_in_color_a_century_ago.html
    which has other pics, plus some of these above, and has them labelled. Thanks, great website!

    Reply
  11. Marie

    I also checked Wiki, on the life of the photographer, and he is there, good thorough short bio. He was a nobleman, left Russia (good move on his part!) after the Revolution, taking most of his photos. They were kept in a Paris apartment, and after WWII purchased by the Library of Congress (for a ridiculously small amount!) and that is where the whole collection is.

    In the Wiki article is a photo of Leo Tolstoy the photographer took in 1908!
    The explanation of how he did the color, as explained by earlier commenters above, is correct.
    (But I understand people thinking they were hand tinted: a popular way to “colorize” photos right up into the 1940′s and later, when even though there WAS color film it was evidently very expensive and few used it.

    For the wiki article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sergey_Prokudin-Gorsky

    Reply
  12. Avatar of mistyrose
    mistyrose

    it feels so different when the photo is in colour and this paints a really different picture from how we think it was back then

    Reply
  13. Mik Fielding

    These are very nice pictures but i doubt any of them are actually colour photo’s. They mainly, if not all, hand coloured black and white photo’s.

    This is fairly obvious in nearly all of the pictures, although some of them are very good, they still have the tell tail signs here and there. my father was a photographer who learned his trade back in the heyday of B/W photography and some of his hand colouring work was amazing, very hard to tell they were not real colour photo’s.

    The signs here though generally are. Still nice to see them though …

    Reply

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