Portfolio: Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii

The true colours of Tsarist Russia revealed
  • @montyhugh

Rarely has a dying regime seemed quite so alive. In early-20th-century Russia, in what were to be the last years of Tsarist rule, Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii was commissioned by Nicolas II to journey throughout the empire and document the daily life and environs of its diverse population.

A chemist-turned-photographer, Prokudin-Gorskii was a pioneer of full-colour photography via a technique that saw him combine photographs shot using red, green and blue filters in quick succession into one image.

The results of his visual survey, which took in 11 regions between 1909 and 1915 (and was preceded by exploratory work dating back to 1905), were intended to be mass-reproduced as slides to help educate children about their country.

History, however, got in the way: in 1917 came the Russian revolution, causing Prokudin-Gorskii to flee and settle in Paris. Following his death in 1944, the United States Library of Congress acquired a selection of his album prints and negatives, but it is only in the past decade that the latter have been restored to full colour using modern digital processes.

As can be seen here, the results proffer the shock of the old, their vivid palettes making an era typically known to us in black and white feel thrillingly, momentarily contemporary.

'Nostalgia: The Russian Empire of Czar Nicolas II' (£55, Gestalten) is out now