Early (around 1910) amazing COLOR photographs
May 7, 2001 8:46 AM   Subscribe

Early (around 1910) amazing COLOR photographs from Russia by Prokudin-Gorskii, photographer for the Czar. He essentially had three cameras, each with a separate Red, Green, or Blue filter, and snapped the same shot at the same time. So all the "reds" were recorded, in B&W, on one photographic plate, and likewise down the line. Then he could use the filters to recreate the scene and project it onto a screen in color. (more inside) (props to slashdot for the link)
posted by jwells (58 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
A few weeks ago A&E had a special called WWII in Color, which showcased the later parts of the war through some color videos and pictures that were taken. I thought it was fascinating as color photography seemed to be just getting started back then, so the videos they had must have been pretty rare. Color is one of those things that I'd always wondered about, as all the older color movies seemed to cast the world in a few pale colors or black and white, rather than the millions that we have now. Did those old days have the same colors? Was my great-grandfather's world really black and white? Was the dying process so unadvanced "back then" that they really didn't have many colors? Probably not, but it was still hard to imagine life back then with the same amount of colors that we have now. But now we've got these pictures from Prokudin-Gorskii, which are kinda forcing me to see those days as if they weren't so long ago. I guess color really was a generational gap for me. Anyway, does anyone have links to other early color works like this?
posted by jwells at 8:46 AM on May 7, 2001

And props to my friend Julie here at the LoC for putting the on-line exhibit together in three days.
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:48 AM on May 7, 2001

That is really amazing...strange that it is harder to accept the images as being really old because they aren't in black and white.
posted by th3ph17 at 9:00 AM on May 7, 2001

Well, thank you Jason for posting this here. This is really great, it's looking back a hundred years and seeing color. It's amazing how good the quality came out.
posted by tiaka at 9:03 AM on May 7, 2001

This is OT, but what exactly does "props to" mean, anyway?
posted by mecran01 at 9:06 AM on May 7, 2001

Also, what is interesting is the pure registration quality of the photos. I'm sure they didn't have Nikons or Hasselblads like we use today. I was impressed with this photo of the Church of St. Dmitrii. The building is in focus, but you can see the registration of the plates showing in the movement of the clouds. Amazing stuff!
posted by 120degrees at 9:14 AM on May 7, 2001

According to the Rap Dictionary, props is a noun that is "an abbreviation of 'propers' or proper respects. A show sits on physical and non-physical props. At an award ceremony the winner gives props: 'And I would like to thank ...'"

Aren't you sorry you asked?
posted by rcade at 9:15 AM on May 7, 2001

The quality of the photos has been greatly enhanced digitally, I think.
posted by kindall at 9:16 AM on May 7, 2001

WOW! Neat pictures!
posted by muppetboy at 9:24 AM on May 7, 2001

Undoubtedly, yes, the image quality was enhanced a bit from the negatives. But this entire process is incredible and blows my mind, given what technology was available at the time.

Jason brings up a really interesting point, too. Photographs that are B&W are often deemed "old" simply because we associate B&W with pre-color technology. Of course, that's not the case when it comes to modern photography, but now we are forced to question if there is any other early color photography out there that no one knows about just yet.

Now, then, is the image enhancement in this case to the point where the colors presented are far, far greater than the original photographer ever envisioned? In that case, there is a bit more future dabbling involved than I personally like. But then, we like to restore old photographs.

Also of note is the time it took to snap these photos. 120degrees points out the cloud irregularity. It's obvious that these are early photos, since everyone is standing/sitting still or the subjects are largely not in motion - thus, it took a while compared to modern techniques but seems to be in line with other methods employed at the time. I wonder if the windmills were in motion; if so, wow.
posted by hijinx at 9:29 AM on May 7, 2001

The quality of the photos has been greatly enhanced digitally, I think.

Well, this whole thing must be a total scam, then. No point in posting those pictures! Matt, you'd better kill this thread.

Seriously, best link I've seen here in weeks.
posted by norm at 9:37 AM on May 7, 2001

Once you see pictures in color from such a long time ago, it is difficult to see these images as old. If more of history was in color, I think you might be able to relate to it more. I saw that WWii in color too, and it was amazing.
posted by brucec at 9:52 AM on May 7, 2001

Way cool. Thanks for sharing this.
posted by rushmc at 9:56 AM on May 7, 2001

> Was the dying process so unadvanced "back then" that they
> really didn't have many colors?

Actually it worked the other way around - at the time of the invention of coal-tar dies (later 1800s) they started out with only garish, highly-saturated primary colors (check the pic of the peasant girls...but the colors worn by the rich were the same, and Queen Victoria's garments would have seemed equally sike-uh-delic to modern eyes. Subtle shades were achieved later.
posted by jfuller at 9:57 AM on May 7, 2001

I take pictures in B&W now and then, and the reverse association happens too. People automatically assume they are prints of old photographs.
posted by JParker at 9:58 AM on May 7, 2001

MrMoonPie -- would it be possible for you to convince your friend Julie to drop in and enlighten the discussion a little bit with some insider info?

Good thing I looked at this yesterday when it was posted on memepool, because it's getting slashdotted hard right now.

To kindall's point about digital enhancements, be sure to look at the "Making Color Images" page of the exhibit, which goes into great detail about the whole process.
posted by briank at 10:04 AM on May 7, 2001

I wonder, as we have access to older and older photos, how often people color-correcting those old color-photos, de-emphasize the brilliant/clear blue of pre-industrial skies, because it doesn't fit with their modern definition of "realistic" coloring....
posted by nomisxid at 10:07 AM on May 7, 2001

> It's obvious that these are early photos, since everyone
> is standing/sitting still or the subjects are largely not
> in motion - thus, it took a while compared to modern
> techniques

Check out Russian children on a hillside. Seems it was just as hard getting kids to sit still then as ever. Ghod, that's spooky! Dust these many decades, and yet they live.
posted by jfuller at 10:08 AM on May 7, 2001

I was looking through the images directory and found a lot of other photos that didn't seem to be linked from the main exhibition pages.

This is a good example of the digital enhancement being a little overdone.

This would make a good album cover.

This is just eerie.
posted by Scotch at 10:23 AM on May 7, 2001 [1 favorite]

this project elicited in me two constantly alternating reactions: "this is fake" and "this is the coolest thing i've ever seen". the color brings an immediacy due to the fact that it is close to authentic, but something most of us have never seen before, or even imagined was possible. also, i really like the effect of the washed out colors in the moving areas of the photographs. i assume the windmills were not moving, however.
posted by benjamin at 10:47 AM on May 7, 2001

To relate this to the Nicholson Baker thread from a few weeks ago, there are also colorful newspaper illustrations out there from that period in addition to color photos. Some examples: Chicago Tribune, 1911 and the New
York World, 1898
[1.7Mb image].

At the slide show he gave at a recent talk, Baker also showed photos of the microfilm copies of the above illustrations. Yucky black and white. No wonder people think the past was filled with gray bleakness.
posted by gluechunk at 11:22 AM on May 7, 2001

One of the things which blows me away about a lot of the pictures is how few trees there are. One of them is a distance shot of a city, with loads of smaller buildings and a couple of really huge ones in the distance, and nothing green in view except grass.

Also, while I have no doubt that work was done to remove flaws in the negatives, I'm not so sure that there was much in the way of sharpening done. The negatives were 3-inch-square glass plates with amorphous silver nitrate coatings, and that actually can preserve exceedingly good detail. The limit would be his optics, which evidently were superb.

These pictures are absolutely fabulous. (I wonder if they're considering taking them on tour to Russia?)
posted by Steven Den Beste at 11:54 AM on May 7, 2001

Wow. What great pictures - I loved the concentration on pictures of Samarkand especially - being a city of ultimate mystery to begin with.

I would have loved to have seen photos of somewhere in the Baltics though - like Riga or Talinn. As a contrast, it would have been interesting to see an area that was industrialized earlier than the rest of Russia. I bet the impression that would make would be strong as well.
posted by mikel at 12:08 PM on May 7, 2001

I'm curious what the lines and the pole to the left of This picture are... When did monastaries get telegraphs in 1915? Possible, but...

I love the sheer beauty of these photos, but something about them just screams "unnatural" to me.
posted by SpecialK at 1:00 PM on May 7, 2001

This photo also seems weird to my eye. The wood on the windmills should at least be reflecting the ambient color, which, referencing the fenceposts in the foreground of the photo, should be a light brown/tan color. The edges are also too sharp and linear...

As I look at these photos, I get a stranger and stranger feeling. Kudos to the techsn wo did them, but are they sure that all of these negatives are precisely kosh?

(Translation: Kosh = Kosher = (adj.) True, real)
posted by SpecialK at 1:11 PM on May 7, 2001

Oops, Link I was supposed to put in above.
posted by SpecialK at 1:21 PM on May 7, 2001

When did monastaries get telegraphs in 1915?

Well, it wasn't just an ordinary monastary . . .
posted by feckless at 1:34 PM on May 7, 2001

It looks like the windmills were from one of the plates, not rg and b, maybe b/c of movement? Thats the only reason I can come up w/ for them being so stark. If you zoom in on the pic, it definately looks that way. ...this would be done digitally of course. Prokudin-Gorskii showed the images in slide presentations (3 projectors). This website was put together digitally - I assume thats how they did the color pics, versus chemically and scanning film.

This pics amaze me. Its amazing how these color images totally change the way we typically think of history. They just don't look old. Old has to be black and white or sepia, right?
posted by tomplus2 at 1:45 PM on May 7, 2001

Don't forget that weather-worn wood can be extremely gray and ashen looking. Personally, I was not bothered at all by the appearance of the windmills or of the house with the little woman on the steps that Scotch linked earlier.

What are you trying to imply, SpecialK? That someone at the Library of Congress is making up these photographs?
posted by briank at 1:55 PM on May 7, 2001

These can't be real- Calvin's dad said so.
posted by dogwelder at 3:33 PM on May 7, 2001

Hmn... I suppose I'm just sayin' that some of the photos seem strange, as if they were planted in the collection or edited by an overenthusiastic photo restorer. Don't forget that the Soviets liked to 'reauthor' photographs during the cold war to remove anything that didn't follow the party lines...
posted by SpecialK at 3:45 PM on May 7, 2001

Well, SpecialK, if he left Russia for Paris in 1918 and the Bolsheviks didn't form the Soviet Union until 1922 so it makes it kind of hard for the Soviets to "reauthor" photographs during the Cold War ('45 to '89).

Doesn't it?
posted by perplexed at 4:17 PM on May 7, 2001

Plus you have to realize he wasn't working with pure color filters. I'm sure there were enough impurities in the glass to make the reds a little too red or too pink, same for the greens and blues.

You also have to take into account the B&W negatives are almost 100 years old.
posted by perplexed at 4:27 PM on May 7, 2001

Great link, thanks jwells.
posted by MattD at 4:28 PM on May 7, 2001

Wow, it's just like a time machine to 1910. The images are so crisp, it simply fools with the conventional subconscious belief that anything representing reality that old, inherently must be grainy and black and white.
posted by crasspastor at 4:31 PM on May 7, 2001

As I look at these photos, I get a stranger and stranger feeling. Kudos to the techsn wo did them, but are they sure that all of these negatives are precisely kosh?... Don't forget that the Soviets liked to 'reauthor' photographs during the cold war to remove anything that didn't follow the party lines...

You're absolutely right. Those buildings look too much like stills from The Phantom Menace. Obviously what we're dealing with is digitally-faked images that have been split into colour separations, transferred to glass plates, scratched a bit to look old, and then smuggled into the LoC collection, with the documentation faked to make it look as if they were purchased in 1948 from the heirs of a photographer who left Russia in 1918 before the Soviets had a chance to remove anything from his photos that didn't follow the party lines, like, say, late 20th/early 21st century Kodak colours...

Come on now. The technical description gives a perfectly good account of why these photos look so convincing, and there are plenty of examples that show the colour-separation effects at work (why do you think the moving water looks so odd?). Have you never seen other examples of photographic brilliance from the late 19th/early 20th century, like stereoscopic projections or coffee-table-book enlargements from tremendously-detailed black-and-white glass plates? If you had, you'd hardly be so cynical about these. And is perhaps the reason that they look so strange that they're historical photos of Russia? How many buildings like this have you seen lately?
posted by rory at 4:37 PM on May 7, 2001

Check out Russian children on a hillside. Seems it was just as hard getting kids to sit still then as ever. Ghod, that's spooky! Dust these many decades, and yet they live.

No doubt! That sent quite the shudder through me. I could sit there for an hour, just studying their faces. What were they looking forward to after the shutter closed? What kind of planet did they take for granted like we do ours, so distant in the future? Sun sets three hours after photograph taken. Homework done by hearth. Early bedtime. What else is there to do at night? Poignant!

God I love these photos.
posted by crasspastor at 4:43 PM on May 7, 2001

It looks like the windmills were from one of the plates, not rg and b, maybe b/c of movement? Thats the only reason I can come up w/ for them being so stark.

Or... it wasn't windy that day? No wind = no movement.
posted by rory at 4:43 PM on May 7, 2001

jfuller: So does that mean that when the subtle colors came in, they would have been "all the rage" and quite possibly why all the old/retouched movies have all those "dull" colors in them?

I love Mefi - this is literally something that's been bugging me since I was a kid...
posted by jwells at 4:58 PM on May 7, 2001

What I find particularly poignant about these images is that its only now, ninety or so years after they were exposed, that we have the technology to publish them. At the time of their creation photographic color chemistry didn't exist (that was a mid-thirties invention). They would only have been viewed by a select (very) few who had access to the (physical) projection equipment required.
posted by normy at 5:22 PM on May 7, 2001

jwells -- you might be interested in a new book out about the guy who discovered coal tar dyes and "invented" the color mauve:

Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World by Simon Garfield.

The story is just as jfuller has described -- plant dyes produced very dull color that washed out. Coal tar dyes were much brighter and created a new palette of fabric colors. Mauve was an instant rage and a must-have for the glitterati of the day.
posted by briank at 6:29 PM on May 7, 2001

dogwelder, I was thinking the exact same thing as I read this, haha.
posted by hobbes at 9:09 PM on May 7, 2001

i love the dog in this picture
posted by
johnboy at 10:07 PM on May 7, 2001

Thanks for the great post. I've been staring at these photos all day. Kudos to jwell.
posted by zebra_monkey at 11:42 PM on May 7, 2001

As much as everyone else, I am overwhelmed by these photos.

However, these sure look like high-voltage transmission lines:


Probably not, but if not, just what could they be?

posted by norm1153 at 2:22 AM on May 8, 2001


Thought I ought to add, that while electricity was certainly known in 1910 as evidenced even by another photograph in this very collection, there does not appear to be electrical distribution to any building in the rest of this particular scene.

Anyway, it's a little puzzle.

posted by norm1153 at 2:32 AM on May 8, 2001

telegraph lines, perhaps?

i so want these pictures to be real. that'd be really neat. heck, they're really neat in any case. i like green roofs.
posted by carsonb at 3:56 AM on May 8, 2001

posted by lagado at 6:00 AM on May 8, 2001

Just a note to say I've alerted my friend who did the web presentation that it's being discussed here. But I don't think she'll have any special insight into the digitization of the images, since she wasn't involved in that step. She did pass along that larger-sized images will be made a part of this presentation at some point.

I walked over to the exhibit yesterday, and the photos are even more incredible irl. There's a detailed explanation on a touch-screen computer of how the prints were prepared, but it was down yesterday. I'll try to have another look later today.
posted by MrMoonPie at 6:35 AM on May 8, 2001

posted by MrMoonPie at 6:36 AM on May 8, 2001

posted by MrMoonPie at 6:37 AM on May 8, 2001

Sorry for the blank posts, all. Trying to kill the annoying underline. I'm sure our benevolent host will fix it all eventually.
posted by MrMoonPie at 6:39 AM on May 8, 2001

Both electricity and the telegraph had been invented, but Prokudin-Gorskii's darkroom was a railway carriage and he travelled around taking these pictures by train. The telegraph spread most rapidly along railways. I think this makes it most likely they are telegraph wires and explains why they appear in more pictures than people expect.

Two scenes to consider if you're going to give this more thought:

Wires close up
Something that looks like a lamp stand with an electric light bulb in it

Going through the index I found these two images which really stood out, neither appears to be linked on the website:


Correct me if I'm wrong - I'd love to know something about them.

Will there be a book of these, or more, pictures?
posted by southisup at 6:35 PM on May 8, 2001

The lamp stand with the "electric light bulb" could be electric -- electric lights did exist then. But could it also perhaps be that this gas light fixture had a mantle that appears to our eyes like a light bulb? That seems the most likely answer to me. The lamp pictured on http://www.marksrv.com/gaslight.htm is not a 1900-era gaslight, but you can see from the modern lamp pictured there that a gaslight could look rather like an electric one.
posted by litlnemo at 3:41 AM on May 9, 2001

I wondered about that too [did you know gas mantles were invented after the electric light bulb?!] but decided it wasn't. Your comment made me look again but not change my mind.

For a start there appears to be both a reflection and translucence, and next the whole contraption seems to have been put in place just for the photo with some fresh mud, and does not look to be in a suitable location for a gas supply... whereas there just might be a wire running from the bottom left of the lantern frame down the front of the pole. Of course, this is a lossy compression of a digitally manipulated composite of 3 sequentially exposed negatives so we are on very thin ice here.

I'm still hoping someone is going to step forward and say "Stop being silly, it's neither, it's a _____", and it'll be blindingly obvious they're right.

Outrageous image interpretation assisted by IrfanView.
posted by southisup at 2:00 AM on May 11, 2001

Note for completeness: The entire image collection is indexed, just not in an obvious place - it's hidden on the 'Search the collection' page. See 'Preview' under 'Other ways to search'.

Direct Links: 122 Colour, 2608 Total.
posted by southisup at 6:22 PM on June 27, 2002

Did you spend the past year looking for that index?
posted by gluechunk at 2:14 PM on June 28, 2002

Every spare minute!

Not really. I stumbled on it accidentally a couple of months back. I've gone back there a few times to check the URL still works before referring interested people to it. When it came up yet again the other day I thought it was time to update this thread.

And yes I am "still hoping someone is going to step forward..."
posted by southisup at 5:22 AM on June 29, 2002

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