When I think about photographs that are over one hundred years old, I usually think of something that looks like this:

It’s faded, it’s smudged, it’s grainy, it’s black and white. It looks like a completely different world than the one we live in today. It’s hard to even make out the faces of the people in the photo, let alone to imagine their lives and personalities. They somehow don’t seem real. Even though this photo was taken just down the street from where I used to live, the people and the place it depicts seem incredibly distant.

But I had a completely different reaction when I came across a collection of photographs taken in Russia between 1907 and 1915 that look like this:

The photos are crisp, vivid, and, most amazing of all, in color. Many of them are better-than-Instagram quality and look like they could have been taken yesterday. This photo shows a family of Russian settlers in the Caucuses region along the border with Persia. As I looked at this photo, I wondered who these people were. What drove them to leave their home in European Russia and settle in a far-off outpost of the Russian Empire? What were their lives like?

The series of photos were taken by a man named Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. Prokudin-Gorskii was a chemist who developed an early color photography technique that involved taking three photographs in quick succession, each using either a red, a green, or a blue light filter. The three images were captured on glass plate negatives and were displayed using a special projector that was fitted with the same red, green, and blue filters. The projector superimposed the images on a viewing screen to produce a full color image.

A portrait of photographer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii

In the early years of the 20th century Prokudin-Gorskii decided to use his newly developed color photography technique to document the Russian Empire. Tsar Nicholas II was enthusiastic about the project, and provided Prokudin-Gorskii with a special darkroom railroad car. Beginning in 1907 Prokudin-Gorskii travelled across the Empire, from Europe to Siberia, taking pictures everywhere he went. The Library of Congress eventually purchased Prokudin-Gorskii’s collection of photographs from his descendants in the 1940′s. And in 2010 the Library of Congress used digital techniques to superimpose each set of three photographs to recreate the full color images as they were originally meant to be seen. The entire collection was posted in an online exhibit titled “The Empire that was Russia” and since then the images have been kicking around the internet.

There are hundreds of Prokudin-Gorskii’s images available online through the Library of Congress, and I’ve spent way too much time looking at them over the past few days.

A nomadic Kazakh family rests while crossing the Golodnaia Steppe.

Together, Prokudin-Gorskii’s photographs show the twilight years of a world that no longer exists. Just a few years after these images were taken World War I and the Russian Revolution changed Russia and the rest of the world forever. Even so, the pictures are very relatable, which made we wonder, how will people one hundred years from now view the photos we take today? With the switch to digital photography, the number of photos people take has exploded. We took 80 billion digital photographs in 2011, up from 53 billion in 2006. Almost everything is visually documented. And now that most photos are digital, many of them will likely be preserved forever – no fading, no smudging, no water damage, no tears. When I look at an old photograph like the one at the beginning of this post, the obvious age of the physical photograph provides some emotional distance from the subject. But one hundred years from now, many of the photos we take today will remain crisp and colorful. Will this fundamentally change the way people see the past? Will the past seem more recent and more relevant?

I’ll leave you with a few more of Prokudin-Gorskii’s vivid photographs of the Russian Empire.

View of Tobol'sk, Siberia in 1912


A Chinese foreman at a tea farm along the coast of the Black Sea in present-day Georgia

View of Tiflis (now Tblisi, the capital of Georgia) in 1910

A melon vendor at a marketplace in present-day Uzbekistan


A fabric merchant at the same marketplace in present-day Uzbekistan


A thread mill in present-day Uzbekistan

Prisoners look out from behind the bars of a Central Asian jail


A locomotive with Prokudin-Gorskii's darkroom railroad car in the background

Alim Khan, the Emir of Bukhara poses with sword and high heels

 References and Further Reading

Hundreds of Prokudin-Gorskii’s photographs of the Russian Empire are available in the Library of Congress’s online exhibit, “The Empire That Was Russia.”

Number of digital photos taken in 2006 and 2011 from National Geographic, April 2012, pg. 35

More historical photos of Boston available at NorthEndWaterfront.com

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