Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky

Russian chemist and photographer

Today marks the 155th birthday of the Russian chemist and photographer Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky.  An event immortalised in today’s Google Doodle animation.


Between 1909 and 1915 Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky traveled through Russia in a railroad car specially equipped with a mobile darkroom to document Russian life using a technique he called ”optical colour projection.”

Born in Murom, Vladimir Province, Russia, on this day in 1863, Prokudin-Gorsky was a chemist who became interested in photography.  He travelled to Germany to study with Adolf Miethe, a pioneer of the colour separation method, and soon developed his own formulation for photographic emulsion so he could create life-like photos in natural colours.  His portrait of the great Russian author Leo Tolstoy was widely reproduced, bringing Prokudin-Gorsky a measure of fame.  As a result, Tsar Nicholas II agreed to sponsor his ambitious project.

Prokudin-Gorsky’s images of people, landscapes, architecture, historic sites, industry, and agriculture were created by exposing three glass plates through three different colour filters – green, red and blue – and then combining them to create a composite colour image.  He captured thousands of images that offer a rare glimpse of Russia before the Bolshevik Revolution and First World War.

Prokudin-Gorsky planned to use the resulting photos to educate Russian school children about their vast country.  Today, his body of work is preserved on thousands of glass plates, which are prized by historians and scholars.

Gorskii._Austrian_prisoners_of_war_in_Olonets_province (low res)

Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky (1915) Austro-Hungarian POW, Russia

While Prokudin-Gorsky’s work shows only a tenuous link to my research, it does provide a glimpse of early multiple exposure bracketing at a time when capturing a single image was demanding enough.  To have to produce three glass plates for each photograph while ensuring that every aspect of the scene remains constant must have been incredibly demanding, to say nothing of the extraordinary physical size of the growing portfolio.

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