Miles Kington: The colourful land that time forgot

'Now that I am Net-linked, I spend a lot of time looking in books and phoning friends for information'
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The Independent Online

The Internet and I get along together like a house on fire, and if you have ever seen me running at top speed from a house on fire, you will know what I mean. The truth is that, although I do know how to send stuff by e-mail (why, these very words you are reading have sped to The Independent by electronic means at the speed of light before being transferred to ink and paper and rushed round the country by lorry at 30 mph), I have the same relationship with the Internet that I have with London or Manchester; I go there when I have to but not otherwise.

Various well-meaning friends have tried to induct me into the charms and fascination of the internet, and they have given up some of their valuable spare time to show me what treasures lie out there waiting to be discovered, but what they have all on the whole failed to notice is that what was really happening was that I was giving up some of my valuable spare time to give them the pleasure of showing off the internet to me.

Or do I really mean to say the world wide web?

I know perfectly well what I mean.

I only do it to annoy, on the principle that people who go browsing on the information superhighway will feel that what they are doing is worthwhile if there are people like me standing by on the hard shoulder of the information superhighway and shaking their baffled heads. In the jargon of today, my incomprehension validates them.

Still, at least I have dabbled enough in the slow lane of the information superhighway to know that the thing called an information superhighway isn't an information superhighway at all. It's an information car-park. The information doesn't so much rush around at high speed as get left in remote corners of a huge long-term car-park, and finding the information you want is very often rather like finding your car at Heathrow when you've forgotten where you left it, or going to a multi-storey car-park in a town you've never visited before to find a hire car whose colour you have mysteriously forgotten...

Before I got access to the internet, I used to spend a lot of time looking up things in books and phoning friends for information. Now that I am Net-linked, I spend a lot of time looking up things in books and phoning friends for information, and I fear that I will never change radically.

The only thing that will convert me is some experience on the road to Damascus, and I really thought the other day that I might have encountered it. I was reading an article in the International Herald Tribune about an exhibition that has been mounted this year at the Library of Congress in Washington DC, featuring colour photographs dating from turn-of-the-century Russia, that is from just after 1900.

I did not know that colour photography was generally available in 1900, and in fact the article made it clear that it actually wasn't – it was just that Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, the photographer in question, was a chemist by training and had devised his own method of colour photography. It had caught the attention of the Tsar, who had commissioned Prokudin-Gorskii to travel the length and breadth of the Russian Empire catching the images of the people and places on colour film for posterity, not realising at the time that within 15 years he himself would be shot for posterity.

Prokudin-Gorskii had to flee Russia in 1918, and all his prints and negatives finally ended up in the United States, where the Library of Congress has now painstakingly made modern prints of them and has put them on show. And, the article added, the photographs could now be seen on the Library of Congress website.

So, idly curious, I want and logged on to this website, and was absolutely stunned by the photographs that I found. Normally hen we look at photographs from 1900, we expect at most to see dark images, solemn faces, heavily draped portraits enlivened at most by different shades of brown. What leaps out of these pictures of Russia taken a hundred years ago is the colour, the piercing bright blue of the sky behind the bleached white of the church domes, the stunning pink of the costumes, the throbbing orange and yellow of the melons in the fruit stall...

More of this tomorrow, including website name. Don't forget to log on to this column in the morning!

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