Born August 30th, 1863, Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky is without doubt one of the pioneers of color photography. In the early 1910s, before the outbreak of World War I, Prokudin-Gorsky travelled across what was then the Russian Empire, documenting the country and the life of its many, culturally diverse inhabitants—in full color. His ventures were financed by Tsar Nikolay II, who was impressed by his previous work and decided to grant him the funds needed for a 10-year project which Prokudin-Gorsky eventually continued beyond the October Revolution of 1917.
Back in Prokudin-Gorsky’s days, black-and-white photography was the norm, 35mm still photography hadn’t been invented yet, and there were no color emulsions anywhere near as sophisticated as those of the late 20th century. In order to take photographs in full color, Prokudin-Gorsky used a technique invented in the mid-19th century by Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell—the so-called three-color process. This process works essentially in the same way as a 3CCD video camera, which records each of the three primary colors (red, green, and blue) on an individual sensor.
But whereas 3CCD cameras use a beam splitting prism to project the three primary colours onto the three sensors each, Prokudin-Gorsky’s camera worked a bit differently. It exposed three consecutive frames in quick succession, using a different color filter each time. The photographs it recorded were monochrome, but when projected through colored filters and overlapped, they would yield a picture in the full visible color spectrum.
Because photographic material in that time wasn’t very light sensitive, each exposure would last for a couple seconds, so his subjects had to remain extremely still during the whole capturing process. Some of his photographs consequently show motion-induced ‘ghosting’ where one or two of the individual frames do not overlap properly. Nonetheless, Prokudin-Gorsky’s 10,000-ish pictures are unique in the photographic world not only because they are some of the earliest examples of full-color photography, but also because of the scale of Prokudin-Gorsky’s documentation of the Russian Empire of the early 1900s.
Later in his life, Prokudin-Gorsky moved to France, where he opened a photography studio and held lectures showing his photographs of Russia to young Russians in France. He was also an acquaintance of the Lumière brothers, who introduced the Autochrome process to him. When he retired, his children would continue his studio under the name ‘Gorsky Frères”. Prokudin-Gorsky died on September 27, 1944–one month after the Liberation of Paris.
Prokudin-Gorsky’s work was purchased by the Library of Congress in 1948, and is today featured on the LoC website.
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