Miles Kington: What's the Russian for 'say cheese'?

'Most extraordinary is that when these photographs were taken, Chekhov and Tolstoy were still alive'
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The Independent Online

Yesterday I was enthusing about a website installed by the Library of Congress to bring us pictures from an exhibition of theirs. It's a show of colour photos taken 100 years ago by Sergei Mikhailovitch Prokudin-Gorskii, who, at the Tsar's behest, went around Russia getting his vast realm on film. He photographed ethnic tribesmen, farm workers, steam engines, tea pickers, enormous churches and tiny families, all in glowing colour – and you can see these amazing pictures for yourself by clicking on to Everyone I have mentioned it to has reacted with wonder to what they have seen, so I think I ought to pass it on you too.

I find it strangely restful bringing these pictures up on my screen, partly, I suppose, because nothing ever seems to be moving in them, and that again is because in 1900 photographers still had to deal with a long exposure and make sure that nothing moved while the shutter was open.

It was worse for Prokudin-Gorskii, however. He had to take each photograph three times in quick succession. This was because the colour process he had devised involved photographing a scene with a red filter, then a blue filter, then a green filter. By amalgamating all three shots he could then produce a colour print or, if he was projecting them as slides, produce the colour by projecting them through those three different filters simultaneously.

I don't know how it works. I am just telling you what the Library of Congress tells us. But I do know that these frozen moments from long ago are absolutely ravishing, and as real as looking out of your window today.

In the Transportation section, for example, there is a shot of six people on a handcar on the Murmansk railway, two in front, four behind. One of the men in front is Prokudin-Gorskii himself, looking modestly modern like a country gent in a small moustache, hat and tweed suit. The man beside him is an officer of some kind, wearing a blinding white jacket like a steward on a cruise liner, holding on to what must be the brake handle. The others behind are presumably railway workers because they are standing, not sitting, and dressed quite ungrandly in what looks like their vests. At first you think the hand car is being driven towards you, but then you see that the flag on the handcar is hanging limply without a flutter and that everyone and everything is motionless.

The railway is single track and must have been laid very recently, as the line is still a white scar across the landscape, with freshly made rocks on either side. The sky is bright blue, as in many of these pictures, which suggests either that the weather was much better before the Communists took over, or that Prokudin-Gorskii needed lots of light, and didn't like clouds moving much. However, there they are, staring at us from 1915, as in other pictures are a man selling melons, prisoners peering through bars, a hugely fat emir from Bukhara and a family portrait comprising members of three generations standing side by side, the grandfather clad in ancient Russian costume, the grand-daughter already Westernised and Edwardianised.

You get a real feeling of change from the scope of the pictures. Some of the wonderful domed churches, looking as if they are kept aloft by balloons, cannot have changed for hundred of years; yet there are also huge, brand-new railway bridges and factory interiors with thumping great turbines. The views of towns look comparatively modern until you realise there is not a single automotive vehicle to be seen in the streets.

But what is most extraordinary is that when many of these photographs were taken, Chekhov was still alive, and so was Balakirev, and so was Tolstoy – indeed, apparently Prokudin-Gorskii took the only known colour photo of Tolstoy when he went to visit him. When you think of those names, it is all part of history; when you look at these photographs, you feel you can step through the frame and shake hands with living people, whether it's the Turkman sprawling on the ground with his camel, the tea pickers straightening their backs for a moment from their toil, even Prokudin-Gorskii himself snapped sitting at a camp site ...

I don't suppose I'll ever recommend a website again. And this one is of no practical use to anyone. But I think anyone who goes there for a glimpse will stay, fascinated, until closing time.