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Peasant girls. Russian Empire | © Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky/ the Library of Congress
Peasant girls. Russian Empire | © Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky/ the Library of Congress
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These Photos Show Russia in an Entirely Different Light

Picture of Dasha Fomina
Updated: 28 November 2017
On assignment from Tsar Nicholas II, the pioneer of color photography Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky spent almost a decade travelling across the Russian Empire. Using his ingenious method to create color pictures, the photographer documented the life of the country that ceased to exist in 1917.

In 1909 Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, who was already known for a color portrait he had done of Leo Tolstoy, was commissioned by Tsar Nicholas II himself to carry out a groundbreaking photographic survey, which the photographer would later refer to as his life’s work

Prokudin-Gorsky traversed the vast country, from the Caucuses to the Ural Mountains and Siberia in a specially adapted darkroom railroad car. Between 1909 and 1915 the photographer produced over 10,000 color images recording everything he saw.

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Group of children, Russian Empire | © Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky/ the Library of Congress

To craft a color photograph, Prokudin-Gorsky used a camera of his own design, taking three black-and-white exposures through a separate filter of red, green or blue. By combining the filtered exposures Prokudin-Gorsky would get a photograph with a full chromatic spectrum.

After the Communist Revolution, the visionary photographer and his family had to leave Russia in 1918. Upon his departure about half of his negatives were appropriated by the Russian authorities. In 1922 Prokudin-Gorsky and his family took up residence in Paris.

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Elderly Sart man (Babaika), Samarkand | © Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky/ the Library of Congress
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Group of Jewish children with a teacher, Samarkand | © Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky/ the Library of Congress
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Full-length profile portrait of a woman, possibly Turkman or Kirgiz, standing on a carpet at the entrance to a yurt, dressed in traditional clothing and jewelry | © Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky/ the Library of Congress

In 1948, Prokudin-Gorsky’s remaining negatives and albums were sold by the photographer’s heirs to the Library of Congress. In 2001, the Library mounted an exhibition, The Empire That Was Russia: The Prokudin-Gorskii Photographic Record Recreated, and has been offering the high-resolution images of the negatives freely online ever since.

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Pinkhus Karlinskii. Eighty-four years [old]. Sixty-six years of service. Supervisor of Chernigov floodgate | © Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky/ the Library of Congress
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Three generations. A.P. Kalganov with son and granddaughter. The last two work in the shops of the Zlatoust plant | © Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky/ the Library of Congress
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Turkmen man posing with camel loaded with sacks, probably of grain or cotton, Central Asia | © Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky/ the Library of Congress