RUSSIA: A picture of Alim Khan (1880-1944), Emir of Bukhara, taken in 1911. Mediadrumimages/PublicDomain

By Alex Jones


INCREDIBLE photos show how subjects of the Russian Empire lived over 100 years ago in vivid colour.

Thanks to today’s modern technology, it is very likely your social media feeds are a festival of vibrant photos and exotic locations as your friends and family travel far and wide, chronicling their travels and happily snapping away.

But were it not for the pioneering work of one train-hopping chemist, travel photography may have been a far more dark and lacklustre affair.

RUSSIA: A Georgian woman in national costume. Mediadrumimages/PublicDomain

Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, who would celebrate his 156th birthday this year, was a master of early colour photography and journeyed throughout the vast and largely agrarian Russian Empire in the early 20th Century, capturing the life and times of his fellow countryman.

Remarkable images show two forlorn looking prisoners shackled together, a photo of Prokudin-Gorskii sitting alongside two men in Cossack dress, and a fabric merchant surrounded by his eye-catching wares.

Around 1905, Prokudin-Gorskii envisioned and formulated a plan to use the emerging technological advances that had been made in colour photography to document the entire Russian Empire – no mean feat as at its peak the Empire measured over 14 million square miles, stretching from across a vast swathe of the globe.

RUSSIA: A family of three work the land. Russia was largely agragrian but an industrial revolution – and a politcal one – was brewing. Mediadrumimages/PublicDomain

Through such an ambitious project, the scientist’s ultimate goal was to, ‘educate the schoolchildren of Russia with his ‘optical colour projections’ of the vast and diverse history, culture, and modernisation of the empire.’

Supplied with a specially equipped railroad-car darkroom provided by Tsar Nicholas II, Prokudin-Gorsky documented the Russian Empire around 1909 through 1915.

Little did he know when he started his project that Russia – and the world in general – was about to go through a period of dramatic upheaval with the outbreak of the Great War (1914) and the Russian Revolution (1917).

RUSSIA: Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii picute here wearing lasses alonside two men dressed as Cossacks. He travelled the whole Russian Empire to chronicle what life was like in the early 20th Century. Mediadrumimages/PublicDomain

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.

But how did Prokudin-Gorskii create his magical colourised pictures?

After years of working with top scientists across Europe, he created a new method for producing vibrant colour film slides. Prokudin-Gorskii created colour images by exposing one oblong glass plate three times, in rapid succession, through three different colour filters: red, green and blue.

RUSSIA: Full-length profile portrait of a woman, possibly Turkman or Kirgiz, standing on a carpet at the entrance to a yurt, dressed in traditional clothing and jewelry. Mediadrumimages/PublicDomain

He then presented these colour images in slides by projecting the three different colour images through three different lenses, one on top of another.

When the three images were projected all at once, a full colour image could be seen.