By: John Dorfman
The Russian photographer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863–1944) belongs to that elite company of artists who, dissatisfied with the limitations of the media available to them, invented their own. Around the turn of the century Prokudin-Gorskii, who had a degree in chemistry, was experimenting with ways to bring color to the monochrome world of photography. By 1907 he had accomplished his goal and convinced Tsar Nicholas II to back him on a massive project to photograph the entire Russian Empire in color. (Interestingly, it was also in 1907 that the Lumière brothers in France independently brought a different, and ultimately more usable, color process to market, called Autochrome.)
From 1909 to 1915 Prokudin-Gorskii traveled much of the length and breadth of Eurasia in a specially fitted private railway car, carrying passes that gave him access to otherwise restricted areas. The Tsar wanted documentation of what his ethnically and culturally diverse subjects really looked like, and this Prokudin-Gorskii richly provided. At The Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis through Feb. 28, visitors can view a sampling of his images from one section of the Empire, the mainly Islamic lands of Central Asia, along what has traditionally been known as the Silk Road.
The photographer explored this region, twice, traveling on the Trans-Caspian Railroad and staying in the ancient cities of Merv, Samarkand and Bukhara. His camera stared fascinated at the bold color contrasts favored by the inhabitants of the steppes. A Samarkand fabric merchant sits amid stacks of dazzling ikat silks, made by local men whose wives kept silkworms and fed them on mulberry leaves. The roses on his robe are set off by the pure white of his turban. A Turkmen camel driver poses with his beast of burden, using medieval means to bring raw cotton to an experimental hydroelectric-powered mill on the Tsar’s estate on the nearby Murghab River.
The 26 images in the museum’s show are actually re-creations of what Prokudin-Gorskii had in mind when he snapped the shutter. For each image he made three black-and-white glass transparencies, then projected them through a lantern with three lenses: red, green and blue. In 1948 the Library of Congress acquired 1,600 of these three-part negatives for $5,000, but it was not until the year 2000 that digital technology made it possible to see them in full, accurate color. The “digichromatography” process that the Library developed was used by TMORA’s curators to make color transparencies that are viewed backlit so as to bring out the full freshness and luminosity of Prokudin-Gorskii’s colors. From their specially designed light boxes, they reach the eye like emissaries from a long-lost world.
TMORA, the only museum in the U.S. exclusively dedicated to Russian art, was founded in 2002 through a gift from Ray Johnson, a Lutheran pastor, collector and art dealer who started visiting Russia in the 1980s. He became an avid collector of Societ Socialist Realism, and the museum originally focused on that group of styles. Since then, however, it has expanded its scope to take in the full range of Russian art history, with recent exhibitions on Russian Orthodox icons, Russian Impressionism and contemporary Russian photography.