Photographer to the Tsar: Revealing the Silk Road

Sergei M. Prokudin-Gorskii

Human memory, helped by visually interesting presentation, will stretch far beyond its normal capacity.

-    Sergei M. Prokudin-Gorskii

Sergei M. Prokudin-Gorskii 1863 -1944
Sergei M. Prokudin-Gorskii was an inventor, chemist, artist, and pioneer in the field of color photography. At the turn of the twentieth century, Prokudin-Gorskii created a magnificent and detailed chronicle of the Russian Empire. His captivating images offer a unique overview of the Empire at a time when color photography was still in its infancy.

Descended from a long line of aristocrats, Prokudin-Gorskii received his education at the St. Petersburg Technological Institute, where he studied chemistry under the celebrated inventor of the periodic table, Dmitry Mendeleev. He took art classes at the Imperial Academy of Arts and later combined his two divergent interests to produce groundbreaking color photography.

Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863–1944), 1912. Photograph. Library of Congress.

Visual Survey of the Russian Empire
After showing samples of his photographs to the Tsar’s brother, Grand Duke Mikhail, Prokudin-Gorskii was invited to present his work to Tsar Nicholas II and the Imperial Court at Tsarskoe Selo. In 1909, Nicholas II wrote in his diary, “In the evening, Professor Prokudin-Gorskii gave an interesting talk on color photography and showed many beautiful slides.” The Tsar wholeheartedly supported the photographer’s plan to complete a photographic survey of the vast Russian Empire, documenting its rich ethnic diversity, architectural monuments and historical sites.

Ernest Lipgart. Portrait of Nicholas II, 1900. Painting.