I recently wrote about travelling through time and space through photographs. This was inspired by photographs of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944) that we saw in an exhibition at Musée Zadkine in Paris.
Titled “Voyage dans l’ancienne Russie” (Travels in Old Russia), the exhibition displays 100 photographs taken by Prokudin-Gorskii, a chemist who pioneered colour photography in Russia during the early 20th century.
With the support of Tsar Nicolas II, Prokudin-Gorskii created an extensive photographic documentary of the Russian Empire and the diverse heritage of the people. Between July 1909 and summer 1916, Prokudin-Gorskii made more than 3,500 photographs.
Taken during a time when colour photography was rare, his images provide a vivid portrait of a bygone era that was cut short by the World War I and Revolution of 1917. With his camera, Prokudin-Gorskii captured medieval churches and monasteries, rolling hills and rivers, as well as the Russian Empire’s diverse population.
His pictures of the ancient buildings show the elaborate architecture of important buildings as well as the basic wooden shacks in the countryside.
What I found most fascinating were the portraits of people at work and/or in their ethnic dress. Looking at his photographs, you get a glimpse of the markets, potato fields and factories, as well as be at the doorsteps of people’s home.
Only 1,902 of these photographs are known to have survived – Prokudin-Gorskii took these with him when he went into exile. Years later, his images of the former Russian Empire were purchased by the Library of Congress which scanned the negatives and created colour images through digichromatography.
This exhibition at Musée Zadkine marks the 150th anniversary of Prokudin-Gorskii and is the first to show his work in France.
As described in the catalogue, the exhibition “sets out to recreate some of the magic and emotion that would have been felt by audiences as they discovered these images in Saint Petersburg, Moscow, and elsewhere a century ago”.
While walking through the exhibition, I wondered if Ossip Zadkine – who was born in Smolensk, Russia in 1890 – might have had similar emotions when he was making some of his sculptures.
We were there on a sunny day. This was the first time I had been to Musée Zadkine and my favourite part was the garden. I would recommend a visit, especially on a fine day, as the museum – which used to be Zadkine’s home and workshop – is beautifully tranquil.
This exhibition ends on 18 May 2014. If you miss it, you can see these 100 images and 1,800 more on “The Prokudin-Gorskii Photographic Record Recreated: The Empire That Was Russia” on the Library of Congress website.
Even if you did see the exhibition, I would strongly recommend to go to the website as there are many more pictures that have been documented online with information about each of them. These pictures provide a realistic and fascinating insight of a lost world and its people.
How did he do it?
In brief: Separate the colours that together form white light and re-combine the results to produce full-colour.
His photographs were made with separate black and white on glass plate negatives using red, green and blue filters. He then projected the images in a specially designed holder with the same three filters to create full-colour pictures. This process was adapted from other pioneers of colour photography such as James Clerk Maxwell and Adolf Miethe.
The picture above shows an illustration of the triple-filter projector on the right. Next to it is a photograph of a crowd celebrating a canonization in Belgorod – if you look closely, you would see some ‘misaligned’ red, blue or green spots due to the movement in the audience when the three glass plate negatives were made of the scene.
What did I do?
While processing the photographs that I took at the exhibition, I came up with the idea of making diptychs that juxtapose Zadkine’s sculptures with a picture by Prokudin-Gorskii.
As I didn’t photograph the sculptures at Musée Zadkine with the intent of making these diptychs, I had only a few pictures to choose from. But these were enough to create some interesting pairings of the works by Zadkine and Prokudin-Gorskii.
Some of these diptychs share a theme or colour. Others evoke a contrasting or complementary emotion. Hope you enjoyed looking at these diptychs as much as I had fun making them!