William Craft BrumfieldFeb 15, 2021
Journeys through the Russian Empire
The Photographic Legacy of Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky
Duke University Press 2020
In his latest authoritative book, Journeys Through the Russian Empire: The Photographic Legacy of Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky (Duke University Press, 2020) Russian scholar, photographer, and chronicler of Russian architecture William Craft Brumfield frames the life and work of pioneering color photographer Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky (1863-1944), while also putting his own magisterial career into sharp perspective. Brumfield updates and interprets several of Prokudin-Gorsky’s iconic images with his own late twentieth and early twenty-first century versions, and the result is an extraordinary study of two photographers and two Russias.
Prokudin-Gorsky was a polymath, inventor, explorer, entrepreneur, and eminently talented photographer, who pursued an over-arching goal of bringing color to the emerging technology of photography. Prokudin-Gorsky combined a strong grounding in both the science and the arts, which gave him easy mastery over the technology. But he was also a gifted entrepreneur, able to see the vast mainstream potential of photography, and throughout his career, he championed the rights of photographers and led the industry in its professional development. From the beginning of his professional life, he pursued his goal to produce color photography, but throughout his career, he was a vocal champion for his colleagues, assuming the editorship of Russia’s “Amateur Photography,” and campaigning successfully for photographers to assert ownership of their work.
Prokudin-Gorsky’s groundbreaking use of glass slides to produce color soon came to the attention of the Imperial Family — passionate shutterbugs themselves — and Prokudin-Gorsky secured an invitation to present his slides to Nicholas II. The tsar became a staunch supporter of Prokudin-Gorsky, ordering the Minister of Ways and Communications to furnish Prokudin-Gorsky with a specially designed railway car for his laboratory, and access to river transport. The tsar also gave Prokudin-Gorsky an enviable laissez-passer for the entire empire, and an order that enabled the photographer to solicit aid from all government officials. For the next six years, Prokudin-Gorsky traveled throughout Imperial Russia on several regional expeditions, sponsored by the Ministry of Ways and Communications, capturing the emerging industrial might of the empire. But along the way, he also captured the natural beauty of Russia’s wilder corners: the majestic Caucasus, the arid desert of Central Asia, and the dense forests of the Urals.
Did Prokudin-Gorsky understand that he was documenting a world that would soon disappear? For disappear it soon did, and Prokudin-Gorsky fled Russia in 1918, bringing with him thousands of color slides. Fast forward half a century, and enter William Craft Brumfield, who began documenting Russia’s architecture in the 1970s. He was a natural choice to curate a public exhibition of Prokudin-Gorsky’s collection for the Library of Congress in 1986, and his association with the Library and the collection has continued to this day. “Journeys Through the Russian Empire” is the magnificent culmination of this decades-long collaboration.
“Journeys Through the Russian Empire” presents a selection of photographs from eight of Prokudin-Gorsky’s expeditions throughout the Russian Empire, from 1909 to 1915, arranged, not chronologically but in a logarithmic spiral like that of a Nautilus shell, beginning with the oldest Russian principalities such as Suzdal in the center and expanding ever outwards to the Volga river lands, the Ural Mountains, Siberia, Central Asia, and culminating a trip to the remote Solovetsky Islands. While Prokudin-Gorsky’s photos were taken over only six years, Brumfield’s span almost three decades, and in this progression, we see the changes in Russia from perestroika to the present. The unique pairings of these photographs are an eloquent rumination on the effect of time.
Both photographers capture the rich scope of Russia’s nature and magnificent architecture in a way that invites the viewer to enter the scene, to feel the heat of an afternoon in Samarkand, admire the mighty sweep of the Volga River as it flows alongside a medieval Russian city, and to enjoy the quiet solitude of a long-neglected Russian church.
“Journeys Through the Russian Empire” is a masterful achievement, and in its pages, readers of all nationalities and interests will find a portal through both time and space.
William Craft Brumfield is the foremost Western expert on Russian architecture, and taught at some world’s most renowned centers of Slavic studies, including Harvard, Tulane, and the Pushkin Institute. In 2019, in recognition of Brumfield’s contribution to Russian culture, President Putin awarded him with Russia’s highest honor for a foreigner: The Order of Friendship.
Jennifer Eremeeva is an American expatriate writer who writes about travel, culture, cuisine and culinary history, Russian history, and Royal History, with bylines in Reuters, Fodor's, USTOA, LitHub, The Moscow Times, and Russian Life. She is the award-winning author of Lenin Lives Next Door: Marriage, Martinis, and Mayhem in Moscow and Have Personality Disorder, Will Rule Russia: A Pocket Guide to Russian History.