04 September 2009

The past as it was: rare color photos of Czarist Russia

Most of us have, or at least have seen, photos taken about 100 years ago: ourgrandparents and great grandparents in stiff poses, the women wearing enormous Edwardian hats, the children looking like miniature adults. The photos are black and white or sepia, and it is hard to imagine that our ancestors lived in a colourful world.

Hat tip to Ad Orientem: Rare Color Photographs of Czarist Russia:
The Library of Congress has a display of photographs taken by the royal photographer of Czar St. Nicholas II online. Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii was given special funding and transportation by the Czar, including a private train, with the commission to create a photographic record of his vast empire.

But when we see them in colour, kids look like real kids:

Back in those days colour photographs were taken only by professionals, and were expensive. They were only used rarely, for book illustrations and things like that, because of the cost. A special camera was used, which took three negatives either simultaneously or in quick succession, through red, green and blue filters. These could then be projected on a screen through filters (rather like early video projectors, which had separate red, green and blue lenses), but were usually used for making colour plates for books.

It was only after the First World War that colour film became available for amateur use. At first there were many different processes. Some were additive (red+green+blue), like Dufaycolor (one can see a lot of them in 1930s National Geographic magazines). These had the filters built into the film -- OK for large format negatives, but the pattern of the filters was intrusive in 35mm film, rather like an enlarged 0.5 megapixel photo today. So subtractive processes, like Kodachrome and Kodacolor, were developed in the 1930s and 1940s, where the silver in the image was replaced by coloured dyes in the development process. The problem with this is that dyes fade, so a lot of old colour negatives and slides have faded and lost much of their original colour.

But Prokudin-Gorskii used a camara that made colour-separations with three negatives, using silver, not dyes, and, by using digital techniques, the colour is as fresh as the day the pictures were taken. And so we can see Edwardian (well, actually Nikolaivian) pictures showing what the people really looked like a century ago.

It's a fascinating collection, and you can see more here.


Tauratinswe said...

Thanks for this fascinating post. I'm a photography nut, but didn't know all about that early process. So, got double from this post: learned something new and saw a great photo. Thanks again.

Tikno said...

becomes known about the early process, thanks.

Yewtree said...

Fascinating, thanks for posting this.

CherryPie said...

Thats a fascinating post. Thank you :-)

James Higham said...

As an ex-Russian resident, that's an amazing thing. It was a different world.

Steve Hayes said...

Perhaps I can add, for those interested in photographic history, that even when colour film for amateurs was introduced, which did not require a special camera, the same process was used for printing them in books and magazines. A photojournalist would usually take positives on colour slide (reversal) film, and then three (later four) colour separation negatives would be made from the slide, though with a subtractive process, so instead of red, green and blue, they would be yellow, cyan and magenta. These negatives would be used to make four half-tone printing blocks and each page would be printed four times, with four different colours of ink - yellow, cyan, magenta and black.

When offset litho began to replace hot-metal printing in the 1960s, it became cheaper and easier, but the separations were still used. That was when daily newspapers began using colour pictures.

Now with digital photography it is a one-stage process -- ink-jet printers print the different pixels in different coloured inks so the paper only passes through the printer once, and not four times as in the past.

But the irony is that older photos (pre WWI), made with separation negatives, will retain their colour much more accurately than those made more recently with colour film in which the dyes have faded.


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