Colour Spectrum Photography 1: Russia, in the early 20th Century

As you will know by now I am interested in photography, and one of my favourite websites is the Big Picture, one of the first photojournalism sites on the Net, and one of the best too. This is where I first found these photos.

They are originally published though by the Library of Congress, as part of a collection they bought after WW11. It was there that I found out how the photographs had been made.

Prokudin-GorskiiNow let’s say you only have black and white photography available, how would you make colour photographs? Colour photography captured through one lens was only invented in 1935 but below are colour photographs from the first two decades of the 20th century.

Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944) was commissioned to document the Russian empire, and he did so in an ingenious way and managed to get what are effectively colour photographs of his subjects by using a form of spectrum photography, taking three photographs in quick succession of the green, red and blue spectrums of the subject.

Spectrum

ProjectorOnce he had the material he could reconstruct a fair likeness of his original subject by projecting the three images with different light sources covering the range, which made up the original image. The colours can also be recombined with software now, and the ones below have been reproduced in this way.

Emir Seyyid Mir Mohammed Alim Khan, the Emir of Bukhara (present-day Uzbekistan), ca. 1910
Emir Seyyid Mir Mohammed Alim Khan, the Emir of Bukhara (Uzbekistan), ca. 1910

During the period he was working on this project he took over 2,000 photographs, which document an empire at the end of its days, though that can hardly have been known to him or his commissioners, but give the photographs an added poignancy for us looking at them today.

He photographed a great variety of subjects, inluding industries, infrastructure construction, city views, as well as people from far-flung quarters of the empire. Here to get started are some buildings:

View of Tiflis (Tblisi), Georgia from the grounds of Saint David Church, ca. 1910
View of Tiflis (Tblisi), Georgia from the grounds of Saint David Church, ca. 1910

General view of the Nikolaevskii Cathedral from southwest in Mozhaisk in 1911
General view of the Nikolaevskii Cathedral from southwest in Mozhaisk in 1911

A chapel sits on the site where the city of Belozersk was founded in ancient times, 1909
A chapel sits on the site where the city of Belozersk was founded in ancient times, 1909

He also took some really excellent formal portraits, like the Emir of Bukhara, which we saw above. Here are a couple more.

Isfandiyar Jurji Bahadur, Khan of the Russian protectorate of Khorezm (Uzbekistan), ca. 1910
Isfandiyar Jurji Bahadur, Khan of the Russian protectorate of Khorezm (Uzbekistan), ca. 1910

A man and woman pose in Dagestan, ca. 1910
A man and woman pose in Dagestan, ca. 1910

But his ethnographic photographs taken of the ordinary folk is what he will be remembered for. Here are some really memorable photographs he took in various parts of the empire.

A group of women in Dagestan, ca. 1910
A group of women in Dagestan, ca. 1910

Nomadic Kirghiz on the Golodnaia Steppe in present-day Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, ca. 1910
Nomadic Kirghiz on the Golodnaia Steppe in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, ca. 1910

Sart woman in purdah in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, ca. 1910.
Sart woman in purdah in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, ca. 1910.

A water-carrier in Samarkand (present-day Uzbekistan), ca. 1910
A water-carrier in Samarkand (present-day Uzbekistan), ca. 1910

A boy sits in the court of Tillia-Kari mosque in Samarkand, present-day Uzbekistan, ca. 1910
A boy sits in the court of Tillia-Kari mosque in Samarkand, present-day Uzbekistan, ca. 1910

An Armenian woman in national costume poses for Prokudin-Gorskii on a hillside near Artvin (in present day Turkey), circa 1910
An Armenian woman in national costume near Artvin (Turkey), ca. 1910

If you want to learn more about the development of colour photography, which we all take for granted these days, see this excellent article on the Wikipedia.

Now you may think that spectrum colour photography came to end decades ago, but you would be quite wrong about that. It is currently in the forefront of photography and is used to produce some of the most beautiful images you will ever see as tomorrow’s post will show.

 




Possibly Related Posts:


5 comments to Colour Spectrum Photography 1: Russia, in the early 20th Century

  • Leon Gunther

    Would I be free to include the triplet of BW photos of Alim Khan in a book to be publish?
    THANK you for making these available to the public to see!

  • Anandajoti

    Hi Leon, I made those photos myself, working from the original. I will send the copies to your email address and you are free to use them. What will the book be about?

  • Leon Gunther

    I greatly appreciate your support. I might include the photos in a book on The Physics of Music and Color.
    I plan to use the photo as part of a problem asking students to explain how the process works on the basis of Color Vision.
    QUESTION: Did you produce the BW photos from the color photo or did you obtain the original BW photos or copies thereof?
    I did find a website with BW photos beside the color photo but can’t find my source on the web.
    Leon

  • Anandajoti

    Dear Leon, that sounds like an interesting project. I saw the original here: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/empire/making.html but it was much too small for my purposes so I remade it by taking the original color photograph and removing the various unwanted spectrums and saving in b&w.

  • Leon Gunther

    Dear Anandajoti –

    I hope that all is well with you.

    My book, The Physics of Music and Color, is finally available on Amazon:

    http://www.amazon.com/Physics-Music-Color-Leon-Gunther/dp/1461405564

    You can read in the Preface that I made mention of the generosity of your time and advice.

    In the process of using the book for my course – through chapter 5 – I have found a few typos.
    I would appreciate your alerting me of any that you find.

    BTW – Might I be able to reach you by email in the future?

    All the best,
    Leon

Leave a Reply

 

 

 

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>