Portraits of a Lost Russia

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The Independent Online

By the banks of a trickling stream in what is now western Georgia, a man dressed in a sharp black suit and hat perches on a stone and stares into the distance.

His hands clasp a bamboo walking stick. The photograph looks like it could have been taken yesterday on a standard digital camera. But it was in fact composed 100 years ago using a remarkable technique that captured the world in glorious colour a quarter of a century before Kodak introduced its first mass-market colour film in 1935.

Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorsky, the man sitting by the stream, was one of the earliest pioneers of colour photography. His collection of stills from Russia – taken between 1909 and 1915 – provide us with an astonishingly saturated window into a past that is usually only ever seen through a black and white prism.

For decades, the photographs remained hidden after they were purchased from his grandchildren by the US in 1948 and then stored in the archives of Washington's Library of Congress. But now, a century after Prokudin-Gorsky toured the length and breadth of the Russian Empire, his 1,900 photographs have been brought back to life and digitised for all to see.

They are a remarkable record of a world that was about to change irrevocably as the Russian Revolution led to the downfall of Tsar Nicholas II.

"The wonder of his collection is the beautiful quality of the images and the incredible amount of detail Prokudin-Gorsky was able to capture," said Helena Zinkham, the acting chief of prints and photographs at the Library of Congress. "He wasn't the only one using this technique at the time but he was one of the few that did it very well."

Prokudin-Gorsky, a Russian noble and chemist who trained in St Petersburg, captured colour by using a camera that recorded three different exposures in succession on the same glass-plate negative. Each exposure, which would usually take anything between three and six seconds, was made with a different coloured filter in front of the lens: red, green and blue.

The triple negatives would then be laid on top of one another and placed in a projector that created a single, full-colour composite.

It is thought that Russia's first published colour portrait, taken by Prokudin-Gorsky in 1908, is a picture of Leo Tolstoy dressed in a blue shirt and reclining in a white wicker chair at Yasnaya Polyana, the writer's much-loved home.

The Tsar was so impressed by the photographer's camera that he gave him permission to travel across the empire.