Russia Exposed: Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky

The incredible life and works of the man who discovered color photography.


This month’s BLAST FROM THE PAST showcases the photography of Sergey Prokudin-Gorksy. 

Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky documented early 20th century Russia with his pioneering work in color photography. With their flamboyantly psychedelic 90’s vibe, it’s hard to imaging that most of these images were made in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. A chemist and a photographer, Gorsky brought his talents together in a series experiments with light, negatives, and optical filters, which led to the world’s very first color photos.

The visual contradictions in Gorksy’s photography are simply mind-blowing. The color stains and vibrant borders jut out defiantly against the sleepy, static subject matter constrained within them. They bring a hallucinatory quality to the day to day scenes of pastoral life. Adding to the dissonance is the striking spatial contrasts inherent in the Soviet landscape- opulent Romanesque cathedrals framed by dusty, dry farmland. Lavish architectural structures surrounded by empty fields, like mirages.

Documenting the natural, architectural and ethnographic diversity of the Russian empire was an important part of  S.P.G’s mission. In 1906 he travelled to Turkestan with the Russian Geographical Society to photograph a solar eclipse, during which time he passionately photographed the colorful monuments of Bukhara and Samarkand. The desire to use his discovery for a higher purpose- to capture and preserve images of Russia’s national beauty, was further intensified in 1907 when an earthquake in Turkestan threatened the fate of many historical monuments. In 1932 the Tsar Nicholas II grew enchanted with the collection of images and commissioned him  to to document the natural colors and attractions across the Russian empire, from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean. Gorsky planned to create 10,000 images over 10 years, using them inspire and educate the younger Slavic generation about the beauty of their heritage.












For several years after his death, Prokudin-Gorsky’s magnificent collection was stored in the basement of a Parisian apartment.  In 1948 it was purchased by the Library of Congress. and for several decades it seemed quite forgotten. It was only in 2001, when all the images were scanned, and uploaded to the Internet as public domain, that they resurfaced and were returned to be viewed within Gorsky’s own country.

The entire collection can be viewed here and is truly worth a browse. There are thousands of photos, ranging from landscapes to architectural shots, to animals, people and historical relics. It lives on as a celebration of a spectacular country and a extraordinary artist’s life-vision.