Twenty-six photos by Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii capture the allure and exotic beauty of ancient towns along the Silk Road.
MINNEAPOLIS (October 1, 2009) – On Monday, September 28, The Museum of Russian Art unveiled “Photographer to the Tsar: Revealing the Silk Road,” a new exhibition of 26 color photographs taken by Russian photographer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. Using a camera of his own design, Prokudin-Gorskii traveled to Turkestan in 1906 and 1911 documenting legendary sites and contemporary life thriving amidst the ruins of ancient towns at the heart of the fabled Silk Road. The exhibition will remain on display in TMORA’s lower gallery through February 28, 2010.
The Silk Road spanned thousands of miles, connecting East and West, stretching from China and India to Central Asia, Afghanistan and the Mediterranean Sea. Caravans of camels transported rare spices, aromatic teas, richly colored textiles, precious Chinese porcelain, gold, and gunpowder to cities in Asia and Europe. A land of ancient oases and sunburnt deserts, Central Asia was added to the Russian Empire in the mid-19th century through conquest, annexation, and invasion. Russia’s southern expansion into Turkestan in the 1860s occurred at the same time it sold Alaska to the United States. Abandoning the seemingly barren northern regions of Alaska, the Russian Empire expanded its reach to a land of bountiful gardens and cotton fields in the heart of Central Asia.
In order to examine the newly acquired lands in the south, Tsar Nicolas II supported the work of Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii, a Russian chemist and photographer who was conducting a photographic survey of the vast Russian Empire. Armed with special access permits from the Tsar and traveling in a specially equipped railroad car, Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii visited the historic settlements at the heart of the Silk Road including Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva, and Merv. Prokudin-Gorskii’s images of Khans and prisoners, beggars and merchants, crumbling mosques and burgeoning industry, Uzbek town-dwellers and nomadic Kyrgyz, capture the rich diversity of the people and cultures along the Silk Road. Taken in the nascent years of photography, Prokudin-Gorskii’s color images are of unprecedented quality and they document this bygone era with striking precision and clarity.
“The images in this exhibition were taken over one hundred years ago yet they have a surprisingly contemporary feel,” said Judi Dutcher, TMORA director and president. “The mesmerizing photos of Prokudin-Gorskii reveal the mystery and beauty of the Silk Road.”
A chemist by training, Prokudin-Gorskii devoted his career to the advancement of photography. Using an innovative camera of his own design, he captured his subjects in vivid color, mounting a glass plate vertically into the camera and taking a series of three exposures of each subject through a separate red, green and blue color filter. When the exposures were simultaneously projected through a special projector with three lenses, the primary colors would combine on the screen to reveal the subject in its true, vivid colors.
More than 2000 of Prokudin-Gorskii’s glass plates were acquired by the Library of Congress in 1948, and through an innovative process known as digichromatography, the Library created single, color images produced from the alignment and layering of the three exposures.
TMORA’s exhibition will feature specially designed light boxes to illuminate the photos from behind, adhering to the traditions of Prokudin-Gorskii, who originally presented his color images in slide lectures using a light-projection system. Prokudin-Gorskii devoted his career to the advancement of photography, yielding patents for producing color film slides and projecting color motion pictures. He used these technological advancements to document the Russian Empire with the ultimate goal of educating Russian children about their vast and diverse history with his “optical color projections.”