Photographer to the Tsar: Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii

October 1st - 31st 2021

The photographs of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944) offer a vivid portrait of a lost world - the Russian Empire on the eve of World War I and the coming revolution. His subjects ranged from the medieval churches and monasteries of old Russia, to the railroads and factories of an emerging industrial power, to the daily life and work of Russia’s diverse population.

This exhibition was originally produced and displayed in The Mill in 2013.

In the early 1900s Prokudin-Gorskii formulated an ambitious plan for a photographic survey of the Russian Empire that won the support of Tsar Nicholas II. Between 1909 and 1912, and again in 1915, he completed surveys of eleven regions, travelling in a specially equipped railway carriage provided by the Ministry of Transportation.

Prokudin-Gorskii left Russia in 1918, going first to Norway and England before settling in France. By then, the tsar and his family had been murdered and the empire that Prokudin-Gorskii so carefully documented had been destroyed. His unique images of Russia on the eve of revolution - recorded on glass plates - were purchased by the Library of Congress in Washington in the United States in 1948 from his heirs. This exhibition features a selection of Prokudin-Gorskii’s historic images.

Born in Murom, Vladimir Province, Russia, in 1863 and educated as a chemist, Prokudin-Gorskii devoted his career to the advancement of photography. He studied with renowned scientists in St. Petersburg, Berlin, and Paris. His own original research yielded patents for producing colour film slides and for projecting colour motion pictures. Around 1907 Prokudin-Gorskii envisioned and formulated a plan to use the emerging technological advancements that had been made in colour photography
to systematically document the Russian Empire. Through such an ambitious project, his ultimate goal was to educate the schoolchildren of Russia with his “optical colour projections” of the vast and diverse history, culture, and modernization of the empire. With a specially equipped railway carriage darkroom provided by Tsar Nicholas
II, and in possession of two permits that granted him access to restricted areas and cooperation from the empire’s bureaucracy, Prokudin-Gorskii documented the Russian Empire from around 1907 until 1915. He presented many illustrated lectures of his work. Prokudin-Gorskii left Russia in 1918, after the Russian Revolution, and eventually settled in Paris, where he died in 1944.