One pioneer in photography was far ahead of Kodak.
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983


Great color photos from a century ago

Sept. 11, 2011


Russian farm girls show the berries they've picked. Photo taken in 1909.

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2011, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2011, The Post-Standard

Eastman Kodak introduced Kodachrome, the world’s first color slide film, in 1936. Many years passed before the typical amateur photographer started taking pictures in color. But one pioneer in photography was far ahead of Kodak, as you can see from an online exhibit of stunning color photos from a century ago.

The exhibit, "The Empire That Was Russia," can be seen at the Library of Congress online, at www.loc.gov/exhibits/empire. You can view more than 60 spectacular photos from Russia at the time of the Tsars -- the royal family that ruled Russia until the Russian Revolution of the early 1900s.

What sets this online exhibit apart is not simply the historical record of a time so long ago. What's fascinating is the quality of the photos themselves. We are so used to faded and colorless photos of our past that we're not prepared for the discovery of images that look like they came from this month's National Geographic.

The photos were taken by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, whose long name was matched by a lengthy career as a photographic pioneer. He persuaded the ruler of Russia, Tsar Nicholas II, to support his plan to document the Russian Empire through his photographs. His project lasted from 1907 to 1915, stopped only by the spreading Russian Revolution and the overthrow of the Tsar.

He traveled thousands of miles through many areas that were unchanged since the earliest days of the empire, producing a photographic record that is unmatched in history. Unlike any other documentary photographer of his time, Prokudin-Gorskii captured old Russia and its people in stunningly realistic color -- in renditions so surprising that there is no sign whatsoever that the photos come from a century ago.

Prokudin-Gorskii made his color photos by taking three pictures of each scene, each one through a red, green or blue filter. After the pictures were developed, the resulting black-and-white negatives were separately projected through their matching color filters -- red, green or blue colored pieces of glass -- onto a white screen. The three solid colors in the overlapping projections combine to produce the full range of colors in the original scene.

(Your color TV uses a similar process involving red, green and blue light to create what you see as full color. You might recognize the acronym "RGB" as both a TV and photographic term referring to this kind of color.)

To create its exhibition, the Library of Congress scanned the original red, green and blue negatives and combined the colors using software. An illustrated explanation of how Prokudin-Gorskii created his photos and how the Library restored them is at www.loc.gov/exhibits/empire/making.html.

The exhibit originally went on display in 2001, but continues to be viewable at the Library's site.