The Amazing Color Photography of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii

The Library of Congress has a spectacular collection of photos by Russian photographer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii that you must see. What makes them so amazing? Well, they are color photos taken about 100 years ago.

The process used to create and develop the photos is revolutionary yet simple. Essentially, three separate shots are taken, each with a different color filter over the lens: one red, one blue, and one green. The shots are then composited to form incredibly lifelike color portraits. It’s actually quite similar to color compositing in modern applications like Photoshop, but to see it applied to photos taken 100 years ago is mindblowing.

When I first saw this photo collection, my initial reaction was that it was fake, because these shots look like they could have been taken a few years ago. When you grow up in the modern color photography era, you’re subconsciously conditioned to actually think of the world as black and white around the turn of the 19th century because those are the only photos you ever see from that period. To see real-life scenes from back then in full color is surreal.

Prokudin-Gorskii’s collection is one of the most amazing I can ever remember seeing, and I’ve only gone through a few hundred photos so far. Here’s where to start:

Note: Kottke, as usual, is about 8 years ahead of me on this.

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9 Responses:

  1. It’s definitely one of my favorite collections at the LOC.

  2. Don says:

    I remember watching the Thanksgiving parade at my Grandmothers house in color … blue cellophane on the top third, green on the bottom … it was a special treat she claimed …

  3. Collin says:

    Nice find! Thanks for sharing.

  4. That’s really cool. It really does look like the colors were just over saturated a little in Photoshop.

    Reminds me of one of my favorite Calvin & Hobbes comics:

    Calvin: How come old photographs are always black and white? Didn’t they have color film back then?

    Dad: Sure they did. In fact, those old photographs are in color. It’s just that the world was black and white then. The world didn’t turn color until sometime in the 1930s, and it was pretty grainy color for a while, too.

    Calvin: But then why are old paintings in color?! If the world was black and white, wouldn’t artists have painted it that way?

    Dad: Not necessarily. A lot of great artists were insane.

    Calvin: But… But how could they have painted in color anyway? Wouldn’t their paints have been shades of gray back then?

    Dad: Of course, but they turned colors like everything else did in the ’30s.

    Calvin: So why didn’t old black and white photos turn color too?

    Dad: Because they were color pictures of black and white, remember?

  5. […] [Via] Link […]

  6. […] Mike Davidson – The Amazing Color Photography of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii – woah, colour photography – in 1911! Essentially, three separate shots are taken, each with a different color filter over the lens: one red, one blue, and one green. The shots are then composited to form incredibly lifelike color portraits. […]

  7. Mike D. says:

    Larry: Hilarious!

  8. Jiah says:

    Not only a cool technique but also well composed. I really like the upright postures vs the slanted backgrounds.

  9. Ian Moir says:

    I saw the exhibit at The Russian Musuem of Art… It is absolutely stellar… My parents visited the Samakand and Tashkent region in the early 1970s. I printed a small selection of the images for them for Christmas – They were stunned and in absolute awe!

    So wonderful that LOC is able to share these withthe world!

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