Review – Close and Far: Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky at Calvert 22

Dinner during haying, year 1909
Dinner during haying, 1909

Earlier in the week I reviewed a new show of contemporary Russian photography, which included a large number of photographs by the Russian colour photography pioneer Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky. Without wanting to quibble about the definition of what qualifies as contemporary, it seemed a little strange to include a photographer who had died in 1944 alongside other work made far more recently (the timing is also interesting given the imminent launch of a show of early Russian colour photography at The Photographers Gallery). Feeling that it didn’t really do justice to either Prokudin-Gorsky, or the younger photographers in the show to compare them directly, I’ve decided to split them up and discuss them in separate reviews.

Born to an aristocratic family in 1863, Prokudin-Gorsky initially studied chemistry (possibly under no less a tutor than Dmitri Mendeleev, creator of the periodic table) but also dabbled in art and music. Dispatched to run a factory owned by his father in law, Prokudin-Gorsky’s interests drifted towards photography and in 1901 he opened a studio in St.Petersburg. He became interested in colour separation, a method of colour photography proposed forty years before, but which had remained technically impractical. Colour separation used filters to create three different images of a scene, one for each of the primary colours. When light was directed back through these images and filters, and the resulting projections overlaid, they formed a correct colour image. Building on the research of other scientists and employing his expertise in chemistry, Prokudin-Gorsky was able to make a radical idea into a workable photographic method.

Enthusiastically embracing his invention, Prokudin-Gorsky proceeded to photograph extensively and the reception to his images was reportedly rapturous. In 1909 Prokudin-Gorsky received an audience with Tsar, leading to a lucrative royal commission to travel across Russia and record its people, cities, and the new development and infrastructure projects which were starting to bring Russia into the twentieth century. Outfitted with specialist vehicles, including a mobile darkroom built in a railway car, the aim was for Prokudin-Gorsky to produce a staggering 10,000 photographs over the course of a decade. Unfortunately the funding dried up after several years, but the photographs he was able to produce e suggest that had it been completed it would have been a unique body of work. The photographs range from images of government dignitaries and civil servants to ordinary citizens, workers and peasants. From factories and modern bridges, to ancient hill villages and the sites of historic battles.

Viewing Prokudin-Gorsky’s colour projections at the time must have been a remarkable experience, but for a modern viewer they still produce a strange sensation. On the one hand the photographs conform in almost every ways to the tropes we are used to in photography from this era. They are formally strong, posed and undynamic, typically shot outside in strong daylight. Yet the simple addition of colour somehow short circuits something in the brain, and makes it difficult to accept that these images are really as old as they are. This I think reflects the very deep rooted ways that we understand photographs, that our impressions of an image are formed by a whole set of aesthetic conventions before we appreciate what the photograph actually shows. When aesthetics and content fail to tally up, the effect can be quite startling.

Perhaps the difficulty of accepting that these photographs are as old as they are also reflects the deep rooted stereotypes about Russia and central Asia, which I discussed a little in my previous review. On some level we maybe feel the scenes Prokudin-Gorsky recorded could still exist today, and a few of them perhaps could. At the same time though he also stands as a challenge to quite a few of our stereotypes about Russia, particularly late Tsarist Russia, as decadent, backward and broken, in due course doomed to the dustbin of history. The innovations and activities of Prokudin-Gorsky, and the modernisation of Russia which he often depicts, would seem to suggest that at least part of the country was progressive, innovative and outward looking.

Close and Far: Russian Photography Now is on at Calvert 22 until 17th August 2014.