Short Biography of S. M. Prokudin-Gorsky

S. M. Prokudin-Gorsky is much more than just a talented scientist-inventor or an outstanding photographer, he is the author of the true miracle that will never cease to amaze people.

Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorsky belonged to one of the oldest Russian noble families, whose members faithfully served his country for more than five centuries.

The progenitor of the Prokudin-Gorsky family line was considered the Tatar voivode (prince) Peter Gorsky, who came from the Golden Horde, fought under the flag of Dmitry Donskoy on the Kulikovo battlefield and lost all his sons in this great battle. However, the family line was not interrupted. According to family legend, princess Maria from the Rurik dynasty was given in marriage to voivode Peter by Grand Prince Dmitry Ivanovich, who endowed him with patrimonial lands as well.

Those distant events are reflected on the family coat of arms of Prokudin-Gorsky.

S. M. Prokudin-Gorsky’s father Mikhail Nikolayevich wrote in 1880, "The coat of arms of our family means: star and moon – Tatar ancestry, scales – perhaps service of somebody in the Judicial Prikaz (department), and the river Nepryadva – participation in the battle of Kulikovo".

Prokudin-Gorsky’s family estate, Funikova Gora, was located 16 km east of the town of Kirzhach.

It was a village back in the 16th century, but Polish-Lithuanian invaders burned it down in 1607 along with the church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Since then, Funikova Gora became a seltso [a village without a church, but with at least one landowner’s yard, outbuildings or chapel: a Russian term since the 16th century]. It belonged to Vladimir uyezd (district) and since 1778 to the Pokrovsky uyezd of the Vladimir Province. The village of Funikova Gora still exists in the Kirzhach rayon (district).

The family name Prokudin (Prakudin) was derived from the nickname Prokuda, given to one of the grandsons of voivode Peter. In 1792 the second part of the surname, Gorsky, was officially added after the name of the estate Funikova Gora (“Funik’s Mountain"), or perhaps in memory of the legendary ancestor Peter Gorsky. Henceforth members of this noble family were known as Prokudins-Gorskys.

For centuries this family served Russia as voivodes, heroes of the battle of Austerlitz, militiamen in the 1812 Patriotic War, participants of the defense of Sevastopol in the Crimean War, local officials, and Justices of the Peace in Vladimir Province. The most famous of them was Mikhail Ivanovich Prokudin-Gorsky (1744-1812), one of the first Russian writers and dramatists.

The grandson of the latter, the pioneer of color photography, talented scientist and inventor, educator and social activist Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorsky was born the 18th (new style – 30th) of August 1863 at the family estate of Funikova Gora and was baptized two days later, in the nearest church, St. Michael the Archangel.

There is still very little information about the first twenty years of S. M. Prokudin-Gorsky’s life. His father, Mikhail Nikolaevich, married Maria Nikolaevna Bardakova, the mother of Sergei Mikhailovich, in October 1861. After serving in the Caucasus in the Tiflis Grenadier Regiment, he retired as a second lieutenant in 1862 and the same year settled at his ancestral estate, Funikova Gora. In 1865 he petitioned to be assigned to service as a chancellery official in the Vladimir nobles’ meeting of deputies, since the possession of 80 peasants in Funikova Gora, as well as serving “as if a mother for a hundred and forty souls” did not allow him to provide enough income for his family. During Mikhail Nikolaevich’s service in Vladimir his family apparently also lived in this city. In 1867 Sergei’s father entered the Kovrov trusteeship as a noble assessor and served there until 1872, having reached the rank of gentleman of the bedchamber. Newspapers from 1873-1875 mention his name as an agent of the Yaroslavl’-Kostroma Land Bank in Murom. One of his sons (Aleksei, who died in childhood) was baptized in Murom, in 1875. In 1875-1877 he was already working as an “honorary guardian” of the two-class ministry school in the village of Myt, in Gorokhovo County, and beginning in 1878 as an official in the chancellery of the Council of the Imperial Philanthropic Society, with the title of chamberlain. It was probably in connection with this job that he was transferred to St. Petersburg. However, in 1880, Mikhail Nikolaevich signed an article he had written in the journal Russkaia starina (Russian Antiquities) as “Mikhail Prokudin-Gorskii. City of Kirzhach.” Given all this, it is not known exactly where Sergei himself lived from 1875 on, since his parents by this time had already divorced.

Nothing is known about Sergei’s early education; it is possible that he was home-schooled. When he grew up he was sent to be educated in St. Petersburg, to the famous Alexander Lyceum, from which, for some reason, his father withdrew him after three years.

From October 1886 to November 1888 S. Prokudin-Gorsky attended lectures at the physics and mathematics faculty of St Petersburg University. There is some information (not confirmed yet by documents) that the future pioneer of color photography was a pupil of the genial Russian scientist Dmitri Mendeleev. Indeed, during the period of Prokudin-Gorsky‘s study at St. Petersburg University Mendeleev worked there in the chemistry laboratory.

Perhaps it was Mendeleev who awakened in the young Prokudin-Gorsky an interest in chemistry.

However, at that time, Prokudin-Gorsky was far enough away from any serious studies of chemistry, much less color photography.

For some reason he left the University and entered the Imperial Military Medical Academy (in September 1888), from which for some reason he also did not graduate.

His complicated educational background was supplemented with artistic studies. Sergei Mikhailovich was a very gifted person – according to some reports, he took lessons in painting at the Academy of Arts, and was even seriously fond of playing the violin. But his musical ambitions did not materialize, because Prokudin-Gorsky badly damaged his hand in the chemistry laboratory.

In May 1890, having left the Military Medical Academy, Prokudin-Gorsky entered the civil service at Demidov’s Charity House as a full member. This social institution for girls from poor families was founded in 1830 by the well-known benefactor Anatol Demidov and was part of the social establishments of Empress Maria Fyodorovna, a kind of public office. Accordingly, for more than next 10 years Prokudin-Gorsky climbed the career ladder at Demidov’s Charity House and achieved there civil ranks as a public servant. For example, in 1903 as a full member of the House he had the rank of Titular Counsellor (fairly low).

In 1894 the Demidov House was transformed into the first Russian commercial college for women. What exactly the duty of Prokudin-Gorsky was in this socio-educational institution is not yet known, but it is easy to say how he got there. Since 1888 Prokudin-Gorsky’s father Mikhail Nikolayevich was among the honorary members of the Demidov Charity House. Obviously, the father wanted his son to follow in his own footsteps.

In 1890 Prokudin-Gorsky married Anna Alexandrovna Lavrova (1870-1937), the daughter of Aleksandr Stepanovich Lavrov (1836-1904), a scientist, one of the founders of domestic steel production, and an active member of the Imperial Russian Technical Society He was as well Director of the Company of Bell, Copper Smelting and Steel Works in the town of Gatchina, near St. Petersburg. Through the patronage of his father-in-law Prokudin-Gorsky became director of the executive board of this large enterprise.

Although his main job (Demidov House) was located in St. Petersburg, Prokudin-Gorsky settled in Gatchina, where his three children were born Dmitry (1892), Catherine (1893) and Michael (1895).

The influence of his father-in-law determined for some time the range of Prokudin-Gorsky’s scientific interests. The young scientist became a member of the first Chemical Engineering Section of the Imperial Russian Technical Society (IRTS), where in 1896 he made his first report on “The present state of foundry work in Russia ". However, gradually his attention increasingly turned toward photography. In 1898 he became a member of the Photographic Section of IRTS and spoke at the meeting of this section with the report "On Photographing Falling Stars (Meteors Showers)”, and published the first of a series of his works on technical aspects of photography: “On Printing of the Negatives” and “On Photographing by Hand Cameras".

In the same 1898 Fifth Photographic exhibition, organized by the Photographic Section of IRTS, Prokudin-Gorsky demonstrated photographs taken from oil paintings of the 17th-18th centuries. Perhaps that was when his attention was drawn to the problem of orthochromatism, because a black-and-white shot must reflect the different tones of all the colors of paintings, even if they have the same intensity.

Photography more and more captured Prokudin-Gorsky’s interest, not only in a scientific, but also in a practical way. He started proving his entrepreneurial abilities to achieve full financial independence in addition to his recognition as young scientist.

On August 2, 1901, the “Photozinkographic and Phototechnical Studio” of S. M. Prokudin-Gorsky opened in Saint Petersburg, at Bolshaya Pod’yacheskaya street, 22. Here in 1906-1909 was a laboratory and the editorial office for the Fotograf-Lyubitel (Amateur Photographer) magazine, headed by Sergei Mikhailovich at this time.

In the 20th century Prokudin-Gorsky came up with a new passion which would bring him worldwide fame – color photography, transmission by photo of all the natural colors of the surrounding world!

Here we have to make a small digression into history. Back in 1861, the year of abolition of serfdom in Russia, the English physicist James Clerk Maxwell accomplished an amazing experiment: he photographed the multi-colored band three times through the Green, Red, and Blue filters. Lighting the negatives received through the same filters, he was able to obtain color images – the world's first color photos.

This technique was called Color Separation (or Three-Color Photography), but it took another 40 years of hard work by the best European scientists, including Prokudin-Gorsky, to make it possible to correctly transmit all natural colors, catching all their subtle shades. The glass plates needed to be covered by a special emulsion of complex composition, making them equally sensitive to the entire color spectrum.

In 1902 Prokudin-Gorsky worked on this task at the laboratory of the Higher Technical School in Charlottenburg, near Berlin, under the guidance of Prof. Adolf Miethe, another outstanding scientist and the main specialist on the Color Separation method. In 1901 A. Miethe managed to design a special camera for making three-color shots and on April 9, 1902 he demonstrated his color photographs to the Royal family. Thus, the material base for taking photographic pictures “in natural colors" was created.

In December 1902 at the meeting of Photographic Section of IRTS Prokudin-Gorsky reported on preparing color slides for Miethe’s method and spoke very warmly of the work under the direction of the latter.

However, as the Russian press wrote then, “the pupil surpassed the master". Using his superior knowledge in chemistry, Prokudin-Gorsky created his own recipe for sensitizing the emulsion, which led to the most advanced, life-like transmission of natural colors at that time.

In 1903 the best German companies Görtz and Bermpohl according to the designs of A. Miethe built special equipment for Prokudin-Gorsky for taking three-color pictures and projecting color slides. Prokudin-Gorsky then could print their color photographs in very decent quality in the form of postcards and book illustrations, but their true beauty and quality could be disclosed only by projection of images directly from glass plates onto a big screen. During the first demonstration of such slides (in modern terms) in St. Petersburg and Moscow in the winter of 1905 viewers couldn't hide their amazement and delight with what they saw, greeting the author with thunderous applause. The era of color photography in Russia had begun!

The exact date of the very first color shots made in Russia by Prokudin-Gorsky has not yet been confirmed by documents, but with a high degree of certainty it may be said, that he made the first trip with a three-color camera in September-October 1903, taking shots of the autumnal beauty of the Karelian Isthmus, Lake Saimaa and the Saimaa Canal.

Unfortunately, we know very little about the early period of the Collection of Splendors in natural colors, and we still have very limited information to reconstruct the chronology and geography of this work.

It is known that as early as April 1904 Prokudin-Gorsky visited one of the most remote corners of Russia, the Dagestan mountains, where he photographed the famous village of Gunib and surrounding valleys and villages, as well as the local residents. To this day it remains a mystery, what the purpose of this distant expedition was.

In the summer of 1904, Prokudin-Gorsky photographed the southern beauty of the Black Sea coast (Gagra and New Athos convent), then the small farms of Little Russia in Kursk province and snow-white winter landscapes around his estate in Luga District, St-Petersburg Province.

After the initial success of his slide projections at public showings, the photographer began to think about further use of such a wonderful invention. Of course, it should bring in some income, especially taking into account that in Russia he, as a pioneer of color photography, was still an absolute monopolist.

The answer seemed to be lying on the surface: at that time the only way to mass distribute photos were postcards that would have a really large circulation. Moreover, the Studio at Bolshaya Podyacheskaya st., 22 had long ago mastered their production, including in color.

In the spring of 1905, Prokudin-Gorsky appealed to the Society of Saint Eugenia (Petersburg Red Cross) with a project to capture in color half of Russia and publish these photographs as the first color photo postcards in Russian history. His proposal was approved. Then he received from the Society an advance and hit the road in spite of the beginning revolutionary chaos!

In a short time he took more than 300 pictures with views of Petersburg, Kiev, Kursk, Sevastopol (including the Battleship Potemkin!), all of Crimea, Gagra, Sochi, Novorossiysk. The next planned were Moscow, Odessa, Kharkov, Pskov, Riga, and Reval. But sudden y the photographer got the first major stroke of luck: because of the economic chaos in the country, the Society of Saint Eugenia could not afford to pay for his work and had to cancel the contract. Almost the entire footage then disappeared!

For a while Prokudin-Gorsky ceased his photographic trips. In 1906-1908 he was busy promoting his achievements in the field of color photography, attending scientific congresses, lecturing and publishing his work, and editing the magazine Fotograf-Lyubitel. He often traveled to Europe, where in 1906 he made a series of color images of Italy.

An important stage in his early work was a trip to Turkestan (Central Asia) from December 1906 to January 1907 to photograph a solar eclipse with an expedition of the Russian Geographical Society, of which he had been a member since 1900. Unfortunately, the shots of the Eclipse in color failed because of thick clouds, but Prokudin-Gorsky passionately photographed the ancient monuments of Bukhara and Samarkand, colorful local types and all that seemed exotic for a European. Probably it was there that Prokudin-Gorsky began to realize that the most important purpose of color photography is not just postcard views, but documenting the natural, architectural and ethnographic variety of the Russian Empire. Presumably, this idea was further reinforced when in October 1907 a strong earthquake happened in Turkestan, causing fears for the fate of many old monuments.

Many months more had passed into every day routine: Prokudin-Gorsky dealt again with family affairs, research, teaching, editing his magazine, the phototechnical Studio. In addition he participated in public life, expositions, conferences, congresses, showed his slides, etc., etc.

But all this time thoughts about the great purpose of color photography did not leave him, he sought to use it. By the spring of 1908 Prokudin-Gorsky got the idea of making a color photograph of his most outstanding contemporary – writer Leo Tolstoy, to mark his 80th birthday. Permission for filming was received and Prokudin-Gorsky spent May 22-23, 1908 at the Yasnaya Polyana estate with the Tolstoy family, creating probably the most famous photographic portrait in the history of Russia. Published in the form of postcards, magazine illustrations and wall posters, the portrait of Tolstoy was sold throughout the country, and with it grew the glory of Wizard of "natural color".

Prokudin-Gorsky was increasingly often invited to show his wonderful projections at evening events, attended by high society. His works were appreciated by one of the Grand Dukes. In the autumn of 1908, Prokudin-Gorsky at the invitation of Empress Maria Fyodorovna visited the Villa of the Romanovs in the suburbs of Copenhagen.

He was then invited to an audience with the Emperor himself. That was the star ticket and Prokudin-Gorsky did not miss his chance.

On May 3, 1909 the fateful meeting with Tsar took place. Its details were described by the photographer in his memoirs of 1932.

Enchanted by the color slides shown, Nicholas II provided Prokudin-Gorsky the necessary vehicles and gave permission to photograph everywhere, in order to capture in natural colors all the major attractions of the Russian Empire from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific. It was planned to make 10 000 pictures over 10 years. Prokudin-Gorsky wanted to use these unique photographs primarily for the purpose of education, that is to install a projector at each school and show in the color slides for the younger generation all the richness and beauty of their vast country.

A few weeks after meeting with the Tsar, Prokudin-Gorsky set out for the first expedition of his new project. The Mariinsky waterway from St.-Petersburg up to the Volga was chosen, because of the forthcoming 200th anniversary of the opening of this canal system. In the autumn of the same 1909 the photographer surveyed the northern part of the industrial Urals. In 1910, Prokudin-Gorsky made two trips along the Volga, and photographed this river from its origins to Nizhny Novgorod. During the summer, he worked in the southern Urals.

In 1911 he made extensive surveys on the approaching Jubilee of the 1812 Patriotic War, taking a lot of pictures around the famous Borodino battlefield. At the same time he photographed numerous monuments in Kostroma and Yaroslavl province. In the spring and autumn 1911 the photographer managed to visit twice the Transcaspian Province and Turkestan, where for the first time he tested color movies filming!

1912 was marked by not less intensive work. From March to September Prokudin-Gorsky made two expeditions in the Caucasus and Mugan steppe (Baku Province), in May and June he undertook an ambitious tour to survey the planned Kama-Tobolsk waterway. In summer as well he travelled through the localities of the 1812 Patriotic War, photographed Ryazan, Suzdal, Kuzminskoe and Beloomut dam construction works on the Oka River.

However, at its peak the project of documenting Russia in color for some reasons was stopped unexpectedly. The most credible version is that the photographer simply ran out of funds, because all the work, except transport costs, was done at his own expense. Since 1910 Prokudin-Gorsky negotiated purchasing his unique collection by the Government to finance further expeditions. After many reviews his proposal was approved at the highest level, but eventually all came to nothing and the collection was not purchased.

Perhaps that was just because of financial problems Prokudin-Gorsky since 1913 paid more and more attention to business, with particular emphasis on involving major capitalists into his projects. In January 1913 he established a limited partnership named “Trade House S. M. Prokudin-Gorsky and companions".

In March 1914 the new joint-stock company Biochrom (color photo and printing photos services) was founded with capital of 2 million rubles. Prokudin-Gorsky as co-founder with a small stake had to contribute to the company his famous collection of pictures.

In 1913-1914 Prokudin-Gorsky with all his inherent passion switched to the creation of color cinematography, the patent for which he got together with his colleague and associate Sergei Olimpievich Maximovich. These tireless inventors intended to develop a system of color film that could be used in wide distribution, this was the main condition for any commercial success in this field. In the summer of 1914, all the necessary equipment for shooting and displaying color films was built in France, but the further development of this new project was frozen with the beginning of World War I. None of several experimental color films of Prokudin-Gorsky has been found so far.

As Sergei Mikhailovich wrote in his memoirs of 1932, with the advent of war he had to return his specially equipped railroad-car, and to work on military matters: censorship of cinematographic film from abroad, training Russian pilots for aerial photography, and so forth.


But already in 1915, in the midst of war, Prokudin-Gorsky suddenly returned to "the cause of his life", as he referred to color photography. Through the joint-stock company Biochrom he tried to put into mass production inexpensive color slides with images from the collection. In 1915 the transparencies became public, but probably they had no commercial success, particularly in wartime. So far, researchers cannot locate any copies of these “pictures for the magic lamp".

In the summer of 1916, Prokudin-Gorsky made his last photographic expedition in Russia, having visited the recently built southern part of the Murmansk railroad, including the Austro-German POW camps. It remains a mystery until now what the purpose of filming secret military installations was.

After the October revolution of 1917, Prokudin-Gorsky for several months continued to be active in Russia: he became a member of the Organizing Committee for the Higher Institute of Photography and Phototechnics, and in March 1918 demonstrated his shots to the public at the Winter Palace.

In August 1918 Prokudin-Gorsky commissioned by the Education Ministry went on a business trip to Norway to buy slide projection equipment for primary schools. But he was not destined to return to his homeland. The Civil that had started in the country made any further work in the field of color photography and cinema almost impossible. The business trip turned into emigration.

In May 1919 Prokudin-Gorsky managed to assemble in Norway a group to continue work on color film. But the preparations faced tremendous difficulties because, as the photographer later wrote "Norway is a country that is absolutely not adapted to scientific and technological work."

For this reason he moved in September 1919 from Norway to England where he continued work on color film. All the equipment had to be done over again, literally "on the knee", as money was desperately running short. Local companions were neither generous nor reliable.

In 1920 Sergey Mikhailovich married his assistant Maria Fedorovna Shchedrina; in 1921 a daughter Elena was born. From 1921 until his death in 1944, Prokudin-Gorsky lived in France, where in 1923-1925 his family members, including ex-wife, moved from Russia.

Work on color film had finally collapsed financially by 1923. At that moment the idea occurred to move to the United States to continue the work, but for some reason it was not realized (possibly because of the illness of Sergey Mikhailovich). The aging scientist had only to run with his sons small photographic business to somehow support himself in a foreign country.

What happened to his famous collection? According to the Memoirs of Sergey Mikhailovich, "due to fortunate circumstances" he was able to obtain permission for the export of the most interesting part of the collection. But so far we know nothing about when and how it became possible. The first mention of the collection in France dates back to the end of 1931, when it began to be demonstrated to fellow émigrés. In 1932 a special memorandum was drawn up on the commercial exploitation of the collection, which became the property of Prokudin-Gorsky's sons Dmitri and Michael. According to the memorandum, a new projector had to be purchased (as a replacement for the old one, abandoned in Russia) to demonstrate color pictures to the public. Another idea was to publish them as albums. Apparently, this plan failed, most likely due to lack of funds.

Up to 1936 Prokudin-Gorsky lectured at various events of the Russian community in France, showing his pictures. In the same year he published his reminiscences on meeting with Leo Tolstoy at the Yasnaya Polyana estate.

Sergei Mikhailovich died on September 27, 1944 in the Russian House (Maison russe) on the outskirts of Paris, shortly after the liberation of the city by the Allies. He was buried in the Russian cemetery at Sainte- Genevieve-des-Bois.

His collection, having been stored all the years of the occupation of Paris in damp basements, was sold by his heirs in 1948 to the Library of Congress. For several decades it seemed quite forgotten. A small exhibit was prepared in 1986, and shown at the Library of Congress' main building in Washington and in several other locations around the U.S.A. Only in 2001, all the images were scanned, uploaded to the Internet and then became the cultural heritage of humankind. Thanks to the global computer network, at the beginning of the 21st century Prokudin-Gorsky’s work returned home.