Before the fall

  • Updated: May 22, 2008 - 9:27 PM

The Museum of Russian Art mounts an extraordinary show of 100-year-old color photos from the czarist days.

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The work of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii

Photo: Sergei Mikhailovich,

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Among the world's forgotten geniuses, Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii stands in the first rank. He was a chemist by trade but developed a pioneering color-slide camera and, in the early 1900s, made more than 2,000 images of remote landscapes, industries, monasteries and people in the empire of Russia's last czar, Nicholas II.

Miraculously surviving World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution and the vagaries of history, his glass-plate photos ended up in the United States and were purchased by the Library of Congress. There they languished, virtually unseen, for 60 years.

Now 23 of his images are on view in a stunning display at the Museum of Russian Art in south Minneapolis through Sept. 13. The exhibit testifies eloquently to the ingenuity of both artist and museum. In its exploration of Russian history and technology, and its celebration of an unsung talent, "The Lost Empire: Photographer to the Tsar" is a smart program expansion at an institution founded less than a decade ago primarily to promote Soviet-era realist painting.

Pioneering photographer

Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944) had to abandon his camera and projector when he fled Russia in 1918 and there is no replica or diagram to show how the equipment worked. Each of his 3- by 9-inch glass plates contains three virtually identical images, shot respectively through red, green and blue filters. When projected through a special three-lens projector, the images converged into a single, full-color image. But the original glass plates are too fragile for a long exhibit.

So, working with images digitized by the Library of Congress, the museum enlarged the photos onto mylar sheets fitted into custom-built light boxes. Installed in a darkened gallery where the boxes and even the walls seem to disappear, the images glow with cinematic brilliance.

Pale summer light dances off the silvery domes and white walls of the 500-year-old St. Nil monastery, a pristine palace on the shores of Lake Seliger. Greek peasants harvesting tea leaves stare curiously at the camera from a hillside in Georgia, and a family crouches in the stubble of a field by artfully twisted wheat sheaves near the Mariinsk Canal. Glorious cumulus clouds sail over the plains of Borodino outside Moscow where, in 1812, Russian forces confronted Napoleon's troops in a battle memorialized in Leo Tolstoy's novel "War and Peace."

The scenes go on -- a multidomed mosque in Uzbekistan nestles into a greening hillside pocked with sunken graves, a bearded hermit sits beside his ragged lean-to in a Siberian clearing, miners in horse-drawn carts peer wearily from terraced digs in an iron-ore mine outside Ekaterinburg, Jewish children in colorful Mongolian robes crowd around a bearded elder on a plaza in Samarkand.

Library of Congress archive

Some of the same images and more can be seen on the Library of Congress website (go to www.loc.gov/exhibits and type Gorskii into the search box). Many, however, have been essentially cleaned up for viewing, their edges slightly cropped and technical distortions corrected. The museum made a point of faithfully reproducing Gorskii's images exactly, said Judi Dutcher, the museum's director and president. That means occasional color breaks at the edges and tiny patches of broken color caused when subjects moved.

"He was an artist and had an artist's eye," said Dutcher. "So we left the areas where the [color] dye transfer didn't line up because we think it adds to the authenticity and beauty of the photos."

Though the show is but a tiny sample of Gorskii's output, it touches on all of his main themes: the vastness of the Russian empire, its ethnic diversity, religious variety, cultural richness and incipient industrialization. Like Edward Curtis, the American photographer who at about the same time attempted to photograph all the Indian tribes of North America, Gorskii envisioned his project as a comprehensive record of his homeland.

Traveling in a private railway car provided by Czar Nicholas II, he journeyed from St. Petersburg through the Ural mountains into Siberia, south to Uzbekistan, Georgia and across the Caucasus to what is now Turkey. Where train service wasn't appropriate, he traveled on a special ship, carrying letters from the czar ordering officials to give him access to whatever he needed. Most of his travel was done between 1909 and 1912, and again in 1915. Three years later, the czar was dead and Gorskii fled to Norway, then England and finally Paris, where he died in 1944.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431

  • THE LOST EMPIRE: PHOTOGRAPHER TO THE TSAR

    What: 23 rare color images of monasteries, landscapes and people of czarist Russia, taken before the 1917 revolution.

    Where: Museum of Russian Art, 5500 Stevens Av. S., Mpls., at Interstate 35W and Diamond Lake Road.

    When: Ends Sept. 13. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Wed., 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thu., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Fri., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sat.

    Review: This extraordinary show is a marvel of technology, art and history. Displayed in modern light boxes, the 23 images are a subset of more than 2,000 color plates made between 1909 and 1915 by a Russian chemist and inventor at the behest of Nicholas II.

    Tickets: $5 adults. 612-821-9045 or www.tmora.org

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