Friday, August 27, 2010

Photography as History and Ethnographic Record: Russia and the Ummah

Self-portrait on the Karolitskhali River, ca. 1910. Prokudin-Gorskii in suit and hat, seated on rock beside the Karolitskhali River, in the Caucasus Mountains near the seaport of Batumi on the eastern coast of the Black Sea. (Prokudin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)

I was delighted to discover these photos in the side bar of an article I was reading. They are beautiful, but also a technical tour de force, given how the photographer had to create the colours in an early era of photography, even of black and white photography. That he was employed by Tsar Nicholas II, to document different aspects of the Russian Empire, gives an added historical and ethnographic interest to the aesthetics of these images.


I quote from the original article, Russia in Color a Century Ago, by Alan Taylor:
With images from southern and central Russia in the news lately due to extensive wildfires, I thought it would be interesting to look back in time with this extraordinary collection of color photographs taken between 1909 and 1912. In those years, photographer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944) undertook a photographic survey of the Russian Empire with the support of Tsar Nicholas II. He used a specialized camera to capture three black and white images in fairly quick succession, using red, green and blue filters, allowing them to later be recombined and projected with filtered lanterns to show near true color images. The high quality of the images, combined with the bright colors, make it difficult for viewers to believe that they are looking 100 years back in time - when these photographs were taken, neither the Russian Revolution nor World War I had yet begun. Collected here are a few of the hundreds of color images made available by the Library of Congress, which purchased the original glass plates back in 1948.
I sent these to a Russian friend who was delighted with them, but I thought they were also relevant here, as showing the extent and history of the Ummah in former Russian and Soviet territories; including the countries from whence some of the wives of King Abdul Aziz Al Saud, his ancestors, and his descendants hailed. Further background and links can be found on Wikipedia:  Islam and Russia, including the History of Islam in Russia.

Taylor's original photo-article closes with "More links and information: The Empire That Was Russia - Library of Congress; Prokudin-Gorskii Collection - Library of Congress." Of particular interest are the articles on Photographer to the Tsar: Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, with a separate ChronologyMaking Color Images, which shows the composites required to make some of the photos below, and describes the technique in more detail, and Ethnic Diversity, which gives more detail, including about some of the photos below. The full Prokdin-Gorskii Collection, of 2,607 images, is searchable by topic, region, image format, etc.

Images from the Empire of Russia c.1909-12

From the Ummah

An Armenian woman in national costume poses for Prokudin-Gorskii on a hillside near Artvin (in present day Turkey), circa 1910. (Prokudin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)

Isfandiyar Jurji Bahadur, Khan of the Russian protectorate of Khorezm (Khiva, now a part of modern Uzbekistan), full-length portrait, seated outdoors, ca. 1910. (Prokudin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)

Closer detail view of Isfandiyar, Khan of the Russian protectorate of Khorezm. This photo would have been taken near the start of his reign in 1910, when he was 39 years old. He ruled Khorezm until his death in 1918. (Prokudin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)

Alternators made in Budapest, Hungary, in the power generating hall of a hydroelectric station in Iolotan (Eloten), Turkmenistan, on the Murghab River, ca. 1910. (Prokudin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)

A group of women in Dagestan, ca. 1910. (Prokudin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)

General view of Artvin (now in Turkey) from the small town of Svet, ca. 1910. (Prokudin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)

A group of Jewish children with a teacher in Samarkand, (in modern Uzbekistan), ca. 1910. (Prokudin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)

Sart woman in purdah in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, ca. 1910. Until the Russian revolution of 1917, "Sart" was the name for Uzbeks living in Kazakhstan. (Prokudin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)

A water-carrier in Samarkand (present-day Uzbekistan), ca. 1910. (Prokudin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)

Emir Seyyid Mir Mohammed Alim Khan, the Emir of Bukhara, seated holding a sword in Bukhara, (present-day Uzbekistan), ca. 1910. (Prokudin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)

Nomadic Kirghiz on the Golodnaia Steppe in present-day Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, ca. 1910. (Prokudin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)

A man and woman pose in Dagestan, ca. 1910. (Prokudin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)

A general view of Sukhumi, Abkhazia and its bay, seen sometime around 1910 from Cherniavskii Mountain. (Prokudin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)

A boy sits in the court of Tillia-Kari mosque in Samarkand, present-day Uzbekistan, ca. 1910. (Prokudin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)

From Elsewhere in the Russian Empire

Molding of an artistic casting (Kasli Iron Works), 1910. From the album "Views in the Ural Mountains, survey of industrial area, Russian Empire". (Prokudin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)

A woman is seated in a calm spot on the Sim River, part of the Volga watershed in 1910. (Prokudin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)

A chapel sits on the site where the city of Belozersk was founded in ancient times, photographed in 1909. (Prokudin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)

View of Tiflis (Tblisi), Georgia from the grounds of Saint David Church, ca. 1910. (Prokudin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)

On the Sim River, a shepherd boy. Photo taken in 1910, from the album "Views in the Ural Mountains, survey of industrial area, Russian Empire". (Prokudin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)

A Georgian woman poses for a photograph, ca. 1910. (Prokudin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)

Pinkhus Karlinskii, eighty-four years old with sixty-six years of service. Supervisor of Chernigov floodgate, part of the Mariinskii Canal system. Photo taken in 1909. (Prokudin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)

General view of the Nikolaevskii Cathedral from southwest in Mozhaisk in 1911. (Prokudin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)

A switch operator poses on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, near the town of Ust Katav on the Yuryuzan River in 1910. (Prokudin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)

Cornflowers in a field of rye, 1909. From the album "Views along the Mariinskii Canal and river system, Russian Empire". (Prokudin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)

Laying concrete for the dam's sluice, 1912. Workers and supervisors pose for a photograph amid preparations for pouring cement for sluice dam foundation across the Oka River near Beloomut. (Prokudin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)

General view of the wharf at Mezhevaya Utka, 1912. (Prokudin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)

Peasants harvesting hay in 1909. From the album "Views along the Mariinskii Canal and river system, Russian Empire". (Prokudin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)

A dog rests on the shore of Lake Lindozero in 1910. From the album "Views along the Murmansk Railway, Russian Empire". (Prokudin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)

Factory in Kyn, Russia, belonging to Count S.A. Stroganov, 1912. Google Map, (Prokudin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)

Russian children sit on the side of a hill near a church and bell tower near White Lake, in Russia, 1909. (Prokudin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)

A boy leans on a wooden gatepost in 1910. From the album "Views in the Ural Mountains, survey of industrial area, Russian Empire". (Prokudin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)

A metal truss bridge on stone piers, part of the Trans-Siberian Railway, crossing the Kama River near Perm, Ural Mountains Region, ca. 1910. (Prokudin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)

Prokudin-Gorskii rides along on a handcar outside Petrozavodsk on the Murmansk railway along Lake Onega near Petrozavodsk in 1910. (Prokudin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)

What stands out most for you about these photos?
Any particular favourites?
Any other comments, thoughts, impressions?

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9 comments:

Wafa' said...

What an amazing post, i love you so much for posting these pictures :)

i am always crazy about pictures though i have no talent reagrading that field at all :(

All the pictures are great and the idea that they have been taken that long ago makes them so special but coloring them make them-i don't know how to explaing it- something of modern day, makes them alive to me, makes me looking at the gaze of the men and women and not realizing that they have long gone-most of them anyway-but actually probably thinking of a recent problem or something, something i might be realting to. it makes them more close and alive to me.

Nothing but amazing :)

p.s: in the part "From the Ummah", you have repeated the caption of the 10th picture on the 11th one. Just don't know if it was a mistake or it's the original caption :)

Usman said...

The Photos are great. So there was technology good enough to have color photos even in early 1900s.

Arianna said...

What stands out most for you about these photos?

That three filter technique is most interesting, much like RGB color spaces in digital cameras today. These photos have all been digitized which is great because they will not deteriorate.

Any particular favourites?

I like them all. The moody ones with workers are particularly interesting. A few could use some Photoshopping because the colors are crass.

Any other comments, thoughts, impressions?

What I find stunning is how little has changed in certain communities since the photos were taken a hundred years ago.

Chiara said...

Wafa'--Thank you for your comment, and I am so glad you like them. I also thought the colours give them a liveliness that makes them seem contemporary. I initially thought that they had been recently colourized, and was really pleased to learn that they were in fact as originally composed by the photographer. Thank you for catching that repeat, and scrolling for it I found another. The close-up of the Khan has more interesting information in the proper caption, and the Nomads are now properly identified. Thanks for both the comment and the proofreading help! :)

Usman--Thanks for your comment. Amazing, isn't it! I'm glad you enjoyed them and left a comment to that effect!

Arianna--Thanks for the detailled comment. I too was struck by the similarity of this tecnique with the more contemporary one, and happy that the photos are well preserved and archived.
I'm glad none have been photoshopped. Colouring is interesting because it is not just a question of technology but of tastes cross-culturally and overtime.
I was struck by the similarities across communities of the same time period and geographical space, as well as a certain continuity over time.
As for the question you asked, the answer is yes, and thank you for your concern. Please feel free to email me at chezchiara2 AT yahoo DOT com for any similar questions you may have, or anything that is a more direct personal communication.
Thanks again for your comment! :)

Susanne said...

I love stuff like this and I was kind of just struck with looking at them wondering what was going on in their lives when these pictures were taken. And like the boy outside of the mosque -- I was thinking, "Wow, he's so cute, but this was taken so long ago, he's likely dead." And I wonder what his life was like.

It always stands out to me that people rarely smiled for photos in the olden days. I notice that about pictures here as well. :)

I loved the flowers, any nature shots, the little white chapel, the gatepost with the boy nearby, the students gathered around their teacher and the little shepherd boy. Lots of really nice pictures. Oh, love the kids on the hill near the church. (I'm trying to rely on my memory as to which ones stood out to me.) The pictures all look very serene. I really enjoyed them.

The emir's colorful, flowery clothes made me smile. I don't know too many men who would wear something like that. :)

Shafiq said...

These pictures are amazing - Thanks for posting them.

Russian history is one of extremes, so interesting yet so tragic. I spent 4 years studying it and never once got bored. The couple of years before 1910 and up until 1914 were a (rare) period of relative bliss. The following years were of untold destruction, death and misery.

Although I knew the Central Asian Republics are Muslim and that they used to be part of the Russian Empire, but these photos give you something no Wikipedia article can.


For some reason, the man and woman posing really stood out (no idea why) as did the Jewish teacher and students.

I also love the Trans-Siberian railway ones - they're still in use today.

oby said...

These photos are astounding in their clarity, crispness, saturation of color and general nondeterioration. In fact, I didn't read the article first and I saw the dates and was going to leave a post asking you if you are sure the dates were right or if it was meant to LOOK in the style of that time... then I did a search and found that it is indeed possible!Truly amazed.

Peter Thorn said...

I would just like to congratulate you on this post - these photos are utterly amazing. I am a British secondary school teacher with a particular interest in Russian and Soviet history, so to see these pictures in colour is fantastic. I really enjoyed photos that featured people in more everyday modes of dress, and that showed the nature of buildings at the time, like the one of the shacks in front of the Orthodox church. Fascinating!

Anonymous said...

Go Freedom !

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