Tsundoku files: Photographs for the Tzar

Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, early 20th century colour photography and how colour changes our perception of the past

Tsundoku (積ん読) refers to the phenomenon of acquiring reading materials but letting them pile up in one's home without reading them right away.

I buy a lot of books - photographic and otherwise. Sometimes I read or look through them right away, and sometimes they pile up until I feel like I’m ready to read them, and sometimes I re-read them several times. In this recurring series (I’m aiming for once a fortnight) I’ll show you books currently in my pile.

I recently was able to get my hands on this 1980s copy of Photographs for The Tzar (rather misleading title but I understand back in the 80s it was probably what sold, as the burial site of the murdered Romanov family was finally discovered in 1979). Sidenote: World of Books is a great website for finding old, used and out of print books.

The reason the book title is a bit misleading because Prokudin-Gorsky wasn’t only taking photographs for the Romanovs. He paid for much of his expedition himself, the only help from the imperial court being the use of a specially equipped train and free passage across the Empire.

Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky (1863-1944) was a Russian chemist and a pioneer in early twentieth-century colour photography - a major breakthrough in the field of photography at the time.

I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t really know much about Prokudin-Gorsky’s work until I recently came across his photographs as part of my research for my project Everything Was Forever (Until It Ended), which deals with my own family’s history in the late 19th and early 20th century Russia (I’ll write more about it in due time). I was looking for photographs that could help me imagine what was life was like then, and came across his work alongside other Russian photographers and what I could only describe as early photojournalists - like Karl Bulla.

It took me a while to wrap my head around how the images were created. It was an intensive process involving three separate black-and-white exposures, each with a different colour filter over the lens (so the subject had to remain still for quite some time). At the time they could only be viewed in full colour using a projector, so were not initially widely circulated.

This technique was an improvement on earlier work by James Clerk Maxwell and Thomas Sutton (among others) and rather revolutionary for its time, as it allowed photographers to capture and reproduce colour in a way that had never been done before.

In 1918 Sergey and his family had to flee Russia following the power grab by the bolsheviks in the year prior. He managed to take 2000 original glass plates with him, which were later sold by his children to the National Library of Congress in USA. It is only thanks to this that we now have this unique glimpse into Russian Empire before the revolution, in all it’s glorious colour.

A wonderful documentary has been made by Russian filmmaker and producer Leonid Parfenov called The Colour of the Nation (from Russian, Tzvet Nacii, which is a play on words and can also be translated as “The Best of the Nation”)

The documentary is in Russian, but you can add subtitles and have them translated into whatever language you want… it’s pretty accurate, I check (do skip the first 5 minutes of wine tasting by Parfenov). The footage and comparison of the views captured by Progudin-Gorsky to the present day is incredible and depressing in equal measure, as you rather viscerally feel how much of history and way of life was lost - but also how much remains the same.

I find it interesting how viewing old images in colour can completely shift our perception of the past. When we see old photographs in black and white, it’s easy to forget that life back then was experienced in the same vibrant colours that we experience today. Viewing them in colour, especially original, not colourised, makes it seem more real, more relatable, and much closer to us.

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On that note, check out

- a digital colourist who takes a very research-led approach to adding colour to old photographs (and I LOVE the stories that are attached to the images too).

Music Credit:

Music from #Uppbeat (free for Creators!): https://uppbeat.io/t/brock-hewitt-stories-in-sound/ages-ago License code: FL9HSBKGZFLXPOOD