Review: Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, Nostalgia

I've always found it fascinating to see early examples of colour photography, because they inevitably reveal a world that isn't so monochrome as all those black-and-white photographs might make you think. I've written about an archive of colour photographs of Depression-era America here before and now I've come across another even earlier archive (which also happens to be held by the Library of Congress) that has recently been published as a book. Nostalgia is a collection of 283 photographs from the early twentieth century "Russian Empire of Czar Nicholas II", by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. A pioneer of colour photography, he convinced the Czar (a fairly impressive sponsor) to back his project to travel across Russia to assemble a photographic portrait of the Empire, which he did from 1909 to 1915. The archive was acquired by the Library of Congress in 1948 but has only just been restored. Nostalgia is not a groundbreaking publication, but it's one that really deserved to be made, given how few people have been able to see these images in their original form.

Triglolastochka, or Sea Rooster, in Batum, between 1905 and 1915

Naturally this isn't exactly a hard-hitting account of the reality of life in those times: while they are not propaganda as such, these photographs are designed to show the Empire in its best light. With close to 300 photographs the book covers a lot of ground (but then so did the Russian Empire) and it's clear that Prokudin-Gorskii was determined to show how diverse this vast region was. Given the technical constraints of this photographic process, there were pretty severe limitations on the kind of pictures that could be made and some of these landscapes and portraits do all start to blend together. To contemporary eyes they could seem 'boring', a series of visual platitudes on the diversity of the people and the landscape.

Cornflowers in a rye field / Haying at the Leushinskii Monastery, 1909

While the compositions are often interesting, it's the intensity of the colour that is so arresting (helped by the fact that the reproductions are as good as they should be). I still had the same sense of shock at seeing this era in full colour rather than in black-and-white: on a basic level it makes these images less muted by historical distance, they feel almost immediate and accessible. Interestingly the publishers chose not to correct the damage to the glass plates or the oversaturated colours. At a time when most photographs being shared online are being processed through faux vintage digital filters to give them the illusion of age, Nostalgia is a shot in the arm of the real thing (Instagrammers eat your heart out).

In the Borodino Museum at Borodino Battlefield, 1911

This book is not only a historical document on the Russian Empire, but also on photography itself. Prokudin-Gorskii was a genuine trailblazer in the colour photography department and it's impossible for us today to comprehend how powerful these images must have felt for the few people that did see them at the time. Leafing through the book, I found myself thinking about how different the meaning of photography is today and how photography as "straight" and descriptive as this is now almost entirely absent from the "photo-world".

Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, Nostalgia (Gestalten, 320 pages, 283 colour plates, hardcover)

Rating: Recommended