Sergeĭ Prokudin-Gorskiĭ Photographed The Last Days Of Tzarist Russia In Mind-blowing Color

Amongst photogs, the name Prokudin-Gorskiĭ is familiar. Long before color photographs were common, he blazed a trail. Even amongst his color contemporaries, Prokudin-Gorskiĭ stood out.

Where most early color images captured interior scenes, Prokudin-Gorskiĭ photographed images outside. This would become part of his signature style.

Preserved by the U.S. Library of Congress, Prokudin-Gorskiĭ’s shots catalog the last days of Tzar Nicholas II’s Russia.

What followed was WWI, communist Russia, and much of what constitutes modern history. Prokudin-Gorskiĭ cornered a unique perspective of the time before modern times.

Privileged Upbringing

Born in August of 1863, Prokudin-Gorskiĭ’s parents were Russian nobility. His family had deep roots in the Russian military of the time.

Prokudin-Gorskiĭ. however, studied chemistry, music, and painting at the Saint Petersburg State Institute of Technology.

After school, he married Anna Aleksandrovna Lavrova, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, Aleksandr Stepanovich Lavrov. Papa Lavrov appointed Prokudin-Gorskiĭ’ as the director of the executive board.

He was doing well for himself, an important feature for photographers. The hobby of photo-taking is not cheap, even in today’s modernized world. Pre-20th century it was only enjoyed by the wealthy.

It was around this time, at Prokudin-Gorskiĭ joined Russia’s oldest photographic society. There, he established himself as a leader by writing papers and speaking engagements.


Photo by Miethe |

In 1902, Prokudin-Gorskiĭ traveled to Berlin for six weeks to study color photography techniques from another famous photog, Adolf Miethe.

At the time, ground breakingMiethe was the master of the craft. He was the first guy to take a photo from a hot air balloon.

We could call Miethe the great-grandfather of drone photography, perhaps, but what he taught Prokudin-Gorskiĭ would lead to his groundbreaking body of work.

In case I lost you, it had nothing to do with being a titan of Russian industry, a lost footnote on Prokudin-Gorskiĭ’s life

Tzar Nicholas II

Leo Tolstoy shot | Library of Congress

After Berlin, Prokudin-Gorskiĭ established himself through color portraiture and landscape images. His most famous photo was of Leo Tolstoy, reproduced everywhere.

This work eventually landed him in front of the Tzar in 1909. Nicholas was impressed, so Prokudin-Gorskiĭ popped the question. He asked permission to take his show on the road, capturing every corner of Russia for posterity.

Prokudin-Gorskiĭ needed not only the blessings of the royal family, but the money to fund his venture. Apparently, his earnings as an executive were insufficient?

In any event, Nicholas said “yes.” That blessing would send Prokudin-Gorskiĭ on a decade-long journey, right up until the revolution. During that time, he would take over 10,000 photos.

Body Of Work

Image of two Russian women by Prokudin-Gorskiĭ | Library of Congress

Many of the images captured by Prokudin-Gorskiĭ were not printed during his time. Since his time, we invented the internet and the internet discovered his work, retouched and digitally enhanced it.

The original captures from Prokudin-Gorskiĭ captured three images using three different color filters. The combined images when processed produced full-color prints.

His method took as many as six seconds to capture one image so any movement created anomalies. In modern times, photo shoppers have removed those anomalies from some of Prokudin-Gorskiĭ’s shots worth salvaging.

Easier methods became available during Prokudin-Gorskiĭ’s life, but they were nascent and costly.

What follows are some of the best shots from Prokudin-Gorskiĭ, captured from 1905 to 1915.

Peter the Great Canal

View of Naziya River from Canal | Library of Congress

School in the village of Pidma

School in the village of Pidma named after His Imperial Majesty, Sovereign, Heir Apparent, Crown Prince, Grand Duke Aleksei Nikolaevich. | Library of Congress

Railroad bridge across Kumsa River

Railroad bridge across Kumsa River near the Medvezhya Gora Station | Library of Congress

Orphan girls standing in snow

Two orphan girls standing in snow| Library of Congress

Oven for cooking pilau

Oven for cooking pilau, Bairam-Ali area | Library of Congress

Irrigation canal

Irrigation canal in the Murgab Estate | Library of Congress