A century ago when photography was still somewhat of an experimental proposition, a Russian inventor set off across Central Asia in a private railroad car provided by Czar Nicholas II. Equipped with a clever spring-operated color camera of his own design, he photographed villages and cities, mosques and bazaars, merchants, peasants and scholars along the ancient Silk Road connecting China with the West.

Through the caprice of history, 1,600 of the photographer's glass negatives ended up in the U.S. Library of Congress, where they remain as an exotic record of a lost world. Stranger still, 26 of the images are on view through Feb. 28 at the Museum of Russian Art in south Minneapolis, where they are a fascinating counterpoint to the museum's handsome display of Soviet-era paintings. The museum has previously shown work by the photographer, Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii, a fact that in no way diminishes the admiration his achievements still elicit.

At its inception in the 1830s, photography was a black-and-white art that aspired to copy the visible world, which required inventing yet more techniques to record images in color. A chemist by trade, Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944) also studied art and applied his skills to the invention of a camera that could take three images in quick succession. By shooting each through a different colored filter (for yellow, red, blue), he produced images that could be projected simultaneously in full color, an astonishing breakthrough for the time. The czar was captivated by his invention and had a special train outfitted to enable the photographer to travel in comfort while documenting remote parts of the country that the Tsar himself could not visit.

In 1918, in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, the photographer and his family left their homeland, where his czarist connections were dangerous. In 1948 his heirs sold his surviving negatives to the Library of Congress, which recently digitized the collection.

Old images, amplified

The Russian Museum has done an exceptional job of showcasing these extraordinary images. In backlit boxes about 2 feet square, it displays enlarged transparencies made from the digitized pictures. Exotic turbaned figures in colorful costumes gaze at the camera from the steps of an ancient university in Samarkand, or peer out from the shady arcade of a fruit and spice market. A bearded elder clutching a brace of dead birds pauses in the snow, wearing a coarse-woven coat that looks more like burlap than camel's hair. A melon vendor in Samarkand sits amid an astonishing display of gorgeous fruit, huge globes of succulent orange, gold and lime-green melons. And in one of the most remarkable photos, hundreds of horsemen swarm over the slope of a sandy mountain in a baiga, a type of polo fought over the carcass of a decapitated goat.

Industry, too, is documented: A row of bright-red cotton gins most likely imported from the United States spits out a vast pile of fluffy fibers, while a line of laborers poses in the sun outside the factory. Brick walls, adobe houses, turquoise and black tile, a crumbling 12th-century mausoleum -- all speak to the country's architectural heritage.

In January 1906, Prokudin-Gorskii's train chugged into the Tian-Shan mountains of Central Asia so he could observe a much publicized solar eclipse and photograph a scientific expedition bundled up in army drab and huddled with their long-gauge telescopes beside a snow-covered yurt. He also photographed camel trains slogging through the mountains, and recorded in the muddy streets of Bukhara a pair of prisoners shackled together with leg chains and neck collars.

By contrast with that squalor, a descendant of Genghis Khan sits, resplendent in striped silk robes and military insignia, in the shady courtyard of an oasis at the edge of a desert near Samarkand. And a young woman in a traditional dress bedecked with silver baubles stands on a handwoven rug outside a thatched yurt.

Prokudin-Gorskii made two trips along the Silk Road, in 1906-07 and again in 1911. Since then his patron's empire has been overthrown and the succeeding Soviet state collapsed. But to anyone who follows today's news from the remoter regions of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and the rest of Central Asia, these images will still seem timely and perhaps even oddly familiar. Plus ça change, plus ç'est la même chose.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431