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Imperial Russia, Now In Color

June 14, 2001

Imperial Russia, Now in Color


IN the dying years of imperial Russia, Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorsky undertook a great photographic experiment: commissioned by Nicholas II, Prokudin-Gorsky traveled the country from 1905 to 1915, documenting the sights, flavors and especially the people of the Russian empire, then displaying the results with an experimental three-color projector.

But as his crude technology, which relied on exposures for each color, fell into disuse in the last century, the photographs were accessible only as black-and-white prints or as negatives of the individual color separations. Now the Library of Congress, in an experiment of its own, is using digital technology to remount the photographs in their brilliant original color. The results are so striking that they surprised even the library's photographic experts.

"The computer allowed us to do something that Prokudin-Gorsky never could have imagined he could do but wanted to do," said Verna Curtis, the curator of photography at the Library of Congress. "It's a complete world there, a world that we usually think of in black and white."

That world is on display in "The Empire That Was Russia: The Prokudin-Gorsky Photographic Record Recreated," an exhibition at the library. It also appears online at

"I think people never realized," said Harold Leich, a librarian who is a Russian area specialist, "how the exteriors of churches and monasteries were ornamented and decorated. The brightness of that color is astonishing."

While people generally think of color photography as something that arrived sometime around World War II, Prokudin- Gorsky was one of many working in the medium at the start of the 20th century. Born in 1863, he studied chemistry in Berlin and worked with some of color photography's pioneers before returning to Russia.

Prokudin-Gorsky used a primitive variation of the technology used today to print color photographs in newspapers, books and magazines. With a special camera, he made three consecutive photographs of every subject on a single glass plate. Each exposure was made through a red, green or blue filter to create a master for each primary color. In his St. Petersburg workshop, Prokudin- Gorsky copied the plates to create positive transparencies, which were, in effect, black- and-white slides.

In the absence of a reliable color-print method, Prokudin-Gorsky became a pioneer of the slide show. The three filters he used on his camera were inserted into a projector, which superimposed the three primary- color images to make a full color image.

While the process was crude, it impressed many in its time, including the czar, who supplied a special railroad coach and darkroom, cars, boats and letters of authority that allowed the photographer to create thousands of color plates on numerous trips throughout Russia.

In the summer of 1918, Prokudin-Gorsky fled revolutionary Russia with about 22 wooden crates stuffed with his glass plates and with albums containing captioned black-and-white prints. He settled in Paris and died there in 1944.

The Library of Congress bought 1,903 triple-image glass plates and their contact- print albums from Prokudin-Gorsky's sons in 1948. But it was not until the mid-1980's that the library attempted to restore their color with a chemistry-based darkroom process for a small exhibition in 1986. Not only was that process complex, Ms. Curtis said, but the results were also not particularly good. The colors were not vivid, and many prints looked blurry, she said.

The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 renewed interest in the Prokudin-Gorsky photographs, especially among academics who were in charge of restoring monasteries and churches. For them, of course, Prokudin- Gorsky's project was more than a matter of curiosity: the photographs could act as guides for the repairs.

Lynn Brooks, a member of the library's technical staff, persuaded the library to attempt an ambitious color conversion using digital technology. The library asked Walter Frankhauser, a commercial photographer in Monrovia, Md., to do the restoration.

"I said, Prodkudin what?" Mr. Frankhauser said. "I had no idea." While he may not have known much about early Russian photographic history, Mr. Frankhauser did understand digital imaging. That knowledge, plus the latest in computer imaging hardware and software, let him start redeveloping Prokudin-Gorsky's work.

Once he received from the library the black-and-white digital scans of the negatives, made at a resolution of a million pixels per square inch, Mr. Frankhauser faced many obstacles. The biggest problem was the alignment, or registration, of the images. "There were three ways for these things to go out of registration, and they used them all," he said. The camera's weaknesses, he speculates, were exaggerated because Prokudin-Gorsky frantically moved the plate and changed filters and repeatedly fired the shutter before his subjects changed their positions.

The vertical and horizontal registration problems were easily corrected by cropping the images to eliminate the areas where the negatives did not overlap. The most troublesome problems came from the fact that the plate often moved between exposures. That led to blurriness and strange color patterns when the three color versions of a photos were recombined.

Using the standard image tools in Photoshop, Mr. Frankhauser learned to adjust the images. Eventually, he was able to correct the registration to an accuracy of one pixel at the center of the images. Initially, it took him about 24 hours of fiddling to produce a single color image. Now he is down to about six or seven hours for each image.

"It's a labor of love," Mr. Frankhauser said. "The library pays me to do it, but, believe me, I'm not making any money."

While the exhibition ends at the library on Aug. 11, the number of photos from the collection available on the Web will be expanded over time. Budgets will probably determine how much of the original collection can be digitally remounted.

"These colors are strikingly clear," Ms. Curtis said. "The impetus here was an archival one to digitize black-and-white images and offer color material as a sampler. But we got allured by the color ourselves."

Mr. Frankhauser estimates that an additional 700 to 800 images are worth restoring. "Even if the library chooses not to do them," he said, "I feel a kinship with Prokudin-Gorsky, and I will keep building the collection between my mundane assignments. I know that sounds sappy, but I'll bequeath to the library when I die."

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