Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii was born near Moscow in 1863. Educated as a chemist, Prokudin-Gorskii applied his knowledge and skills towards the advancement of photography. He was especially interested in the reproduction of color, which at the time was a tedious and difficult process.
Though some of his images date back to 1905, the bulk of his work documenting the Russian empire of Tsar Nicholas II took place between 1909-1915. Prokudin-Gorskii’s color photos were recorded as “separation negatives” on black and white glass plates. The camera he used made three sequential exposures through blue, green and red filters. He then printed these negatives as positives, which he inserted into a magic lantern to project and superimpose the frames back through the same combination of filters. The result was a full color reproduction of the original scene.
The bulk of this project took place from 1909 to 1915, when Prokudin-Gorskii traveled about the land in a railroad car outfitted as a darkroom, provided to him by the tsar.
In the composite image below, I used Adobe Photoshop to recreate the process of converting three black and white frames into a full color image.
In the black and white strip on the left, the filter sequence is blue, green and red.
First, I created a blank RGB (red/green/blue) file in Photoshop that was the size and resolution of one of the individual frames. I then copied each of the frames into the corresponding color channel of the Photoshop file. A simple lining up of the channels resulted in the full color image on the right.
Ghosting in Prokudin-Gorskii’s color images is caused by any misalignment between the successive exposures. Probable reasons for this are subject movement and/or movement of the negative plate between the exposures.
Prokudin-Gorskii left Russia in 1918 after the revolution. He eventually settled in Paris, where he died in 1944. The Library of Congress purchased the collection from his sons in 1948.
The Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii collection of the Library of Congress has 1,902 of these black and white glass triple-frame plates, as well as several thousand sepia toned and color prints.
Digital color composites for these images were made for the Library of Congress by Blaise Agüera y Arcas in 2004. Images are courtesy of the Library of Congress.
More information on Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, as well as a larger selection of his images can be found at the Library of Congress.