The years 1905 thru 1917 were turbulent at best in Russia. In 1905 the first Russian Revolution took place due to the cumulation of dissatisfaction with the rate of reform under the Romanov dynasty. Though the revolution did speed up some reforms it would not be enough.
By 1917 the Bolshevik party would again make their claim to the empire and this time they succeeded in overthrowing the royal dynasty in one of the bloodiest and costliest revolutions in human history.
During these middle years most of Europe was thrown into turmoil. With the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand combined with the labyrinthine alliances of Eastern and Western Europe and an ever growing arms race most of the continent broke out into bloody conflict. New technologies such as the machine gun, the tank and the airplane were first being demonstrated along the western front in France and Germany and millions lost their lives due to war and disease. The old world was fading into the fog of history and the 20th century was born.
During this era a man named Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky was commissioned by Tsar Nicholas II to document the vast Russian Empire. Because of his fame from photographing Leo Tolstoy and the connections he had within the royal family he was allowed unparalleled access to parts of Russia where travel was typically forbidden. Utilizing a railroad car equipped with a darkroom and a new photographic technique which produced high quality color images, Prokudin-Gorsky managed to create a voluminous photographic record of this middle era of human history.
Prokudin-Gorsky’s technique was unique even among modern 21st century photographers. Though no surviving examples of his camera remains his process is well understood and is familiar to anyone with even a rudiment knowledge of color theory and digital image processing. By taking a rapid series of 3 images (one red, one green and one blue) onto glass plates he could combine the images and display them onto a screen in full color. Since the plates were large the final images are of incredible detail and clarity and they even rival the quality of most modern digital cameras.
Prokudin-Gorsky captured thousands of images of which nearly all have survived. Many of the plates are in very good condition and in 2004 the Library of Congress commissioned many of these plates to be digitally enhanced to produce a final high quality image.
This photographic record of the people and places of the Russian Empire during the formative years of modern civilization are some of the most important surviving documents concerning human history. Even more amazing is that their presentation in color bridges the gap of history and places us the viewer in a much more intimate context with the subjects in the photos. Unlike the vast majority of old images which are black and white, sepia toned or faded, here we are given a striking account of a time nearly 100 years ago that appears to have been recorded just yesterday. In this context we can better empathize with the subjects at hand and thus we are allowed access to a time and place that would otherwise feel distant and irrelevant to our modern lives.
History is our greatest teacher but too often we fail to feel it’s importance in our own lives. Often we think of the past as a series of events which are either not relevant to us or could not possibly occur ever again. Unfortunately many of the events that took place during the early part of the 20th century repeated themselves on an even greater scale only 20 years later. Today we still feel the effects of this era yet because of our convenient lifestyles we are once more becoming complacent and are putting ourselves at risk to repeat the mistakes of the past.