Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Colour photographs of Russia in the first decade of the 20th century

Sometime ago I posted a comment pondering the question of why the early uses of colour photography were so often uninteresting - in the sense that the photographers didn't really seem to know what to do with the colour process. A couple of weeks ago a friend pointed me to a website with a large number of colour images (mostly) made in the first decade of the 20th century by the Russian photographer Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky. I have lost the link to the website, but the web being what it is there are plenty of others. This one has a reasonable number of images and is easy to navigate through.

Quite a lots of the Prokudin-Gorsky images have a kind of postcard quality to them. This is unsurprising I suppose since he saw his task as one of documenting Russia - particularly provincial Russia - while at the same time refining his three-colour photographic technique. It is worth outlining this technique in order to get a sense of how hard it is and how accomplished Prokudin-Gorsky was at it.

Our old friend Wikipedia summarises the technique accurately and reasonably concisely:

The photographer takes three sequential photographs in black and white with the use of three color filters: cyan, magenta and yellow. The union of the three photographic negatives, developed in the chromatic scales corresponding to the color filter used, gives rise to surprisingly saturated color photographs and realistic. The main difficulty of this technique is the necessary immobility of the subject being filmed, so the movement of the person portrayed can create colored halos unreal. The birth of modern color photography - that has made this technique obsolete - is dated from 1935 when the Kodak and Agfa invent emusioni Kodachrome and Agfacolor Neue. These films, just like the ones currently in production, contain within them the three emulsion layers sensitive to different light spectra
So three identical photographic plates had to be made each, with a different coloured filter, and then each has to be developed independently in appropriate chemicals for the filter used. The three negatives were then placed together and a single print made. As an historical side note, it was the renowned scientist James Clerk Maxwell who first suggested the technique in 1855, and the earliest examples of colour photographs made in this way date from 1961. However it was only in the early 20th century that the materials required were stable enough for practical use.

Given that Prokudin-Gorsky was so interested in the three-colour process, it is unsurprising that at least some of his photographs display an awareness of what colour might add to photographic image making. Consider, for example:

The blocks of bright colour from the brightly coloured fabrics are perfectly foregrounded against the neutral-toned bleached wood - and offset all the more by being placed against the horizontal lines of the wood (though notice the way the middle girl is framed in the middle of the door). As is often the case with early photographic techniques that requires the subject matter to be very still for a long time, the faces and postures are enigmatic. Lifelike, but un-animated.

So many of Prokudin-Gorsky's images make use of the colourful fabrics within the dress (one gets the sense it is not the everyday dress) of the provincial Russians. Here are two more examples:

  My sense is that Prokudin-Gorsky did manage to make interesting use of colour within his photography by making the colours that adorn or fill the lives of the population he was documenting part of his subject matter. Part of what he is documenting is an account of the place of colour in the lives of the provincial Russian, and that adds something quite compelling to his images. Likewise, his landscape images seem to me at least to be explorations of a coloured environment, rather than merely explorations of an environment that happens to appear in colour. How about this for example:

Here are a couple more of people in more or less colourful clothing against more of less colourful or neutral backdrops.

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