This is the first in a series about some of the fascinating people who were pioneers in their chosen fields. Several of these folk, though by no means all, are likely to have been somewhere on the Asperger-Autism spectrum.
This series will be interspersed with posts about other topics.
Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky was born in 1863. As a young man he moved with his family to Saint Petersburg where he studied chemistry at the Institute of Technology, as well as music and painting at the Academy of Arts. This was an indication of his versatility and an excellent background for what was to become his life’s work, namely colour photography. In 1902 he travelled to Berlin, Germany to do a course in colour sensitization and three-colour photography with Professor Adolph Miethe. Professor Miethe was certainly one of the most knowledgeable pioneers of photography and on what we would today call the cutting edge. He designed a high quality coloour camera which was manufactured by and available from a firm called Bermpohl from 1903.
On his return to Russia this pioneer impressed the scientists and academics of Tsarist Russia, including the Tsar himself. One of his most famous works is the image of the great writer Leo Tolstoy reproduced below:
The Tsar provided funding for a proposed photographic record of the great land Motherland. Sergey travelled throughout Russia during the next nine years and amassed around 10 000 photographs, of which 1,902 eventually came into the possession of the US Library of Congress. These are an invaluable insight into what Russia looked like in the years 1908-1917.
Although not threatened in any way by the new revolutionary regime which overthrew the Tsarists, and in fact appointed him in a new professorial position, he evidently didn’t approve of the new rulers and left the country in 1918. He continued his fascinating research into colour photography and obtained patents in Germany, France, Italy and England.
Because of the innovation of Prokudin-Gorsky, we have a wonderful record of a lost way of life and of people in traditional outfits in all their colourful glory, instead of grim, drab black and white pictures as was almost all photography of the time.
As it was only after the Second World War that colour photography became widespread, most prewar images are rather forbiddingly grey and we don’t have the technology to actually transform a black and white image to colour, even in the digital age, as you can’t add data that isn’t there to start with.
Take the image above. Colour brings the town to life and we can begin to imagine the people going about their daily business in the streets, and hear the children chatting as they make their way home from school.
A few years after Prokudin-Gorsky’s death in Paris in 1944, all the surviving prints and negatives were purchased by the US Library of Congress
If it were not for pioneers who made it their life’s passion to improve the resources available to their special interests, we wouldn’t be where we are today, with digital footage at our fingertips and the ability to share beautiful images with family or friends halfway across the globe.
These are incredibly valuable and poignant tributes to a vanished way of life and we can be thankful that so many have been preserved.
In 2000, the Library of Congress embarked on a project to digitize the entire collection of photos and make them freely available on the Internet. Automated colour composites were made using advanced methods.
Today everyone can enjoy the privilege of entering the fascinating world of Sergey Prokudin-Gorski and the cultural smorgasbord of Mother Russia from a bygone age a little over a century ago, when she was part of the Mysterious East hardly known to the rapidly developing countries of the British Empire or the young America, where movie making was in its infancy and cities were about to get a lot higher.
These images are among the precious building blocks of the new Library of Alexandria which the Internet is making possible.
There will be more posts about some of the other innovators who paved the way for technology and comfort as we know it today, just because they were ready to voyage into new dimensions.