May Allah have mercy on you, Prokudin-Gorsky

Some of our super-knowledgeable kinsmen, hearing this “Allah rəhmət eləsin”, probably will hurry to say “he, being non-Muslim, doesn’t qualify for rəhmət”. However, this expression in our language takes its roots from Arabic “رحمة الله عليه”, that is a wish “May Allah have mercy on him” about somebody who has passed away. And this wish has already reached its destination – the all-hearing and the all-seeing the most merciful of all-merciful –, so there is no place for further needless words.

Mirza Jalil also started his story entitled “Qurbanəli bəy” in 1907 with the epigraph “Qoqol, Allah sənə rəhmət eləsin” i.e. “Gogol, may Allah have mercy on you”. It is evident that the criticizing, satirical writings by the classic author of Russian literature Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol (1809-1852) had a big influence on the oeuvre of Jalil Mammadguluzade (1869-1932) and stimulated the birth of the “Molla Nəsrəddin” literary school.

Sergey Mikhaylovich Prokudin-Gorsky (1863-1944) is considered to be one of the world’s pioneers of color photography. The reason we wish him “rəhmət is that he is the creator of probably the first known color photos of Azerbaijan and Azerbaijanis.

Who was Prokudin-Gorsky?

It is interesting that the Prokudin-Gorsky family has its roots in the Tatar grand duke Murza Musa (1350-?), who together with his sons came to the Duchy of Moscow from the Golden Horde and adopted Orthodox Christianity and the name of Pyotr. So the crescent and star on the family coat of arms is a reference to those Tatar roots, while the symbolic depiction of a river is a reference to the Nepryadva, a tributary of the Don river, and to participation in the Battle of Kulikovo. It is said that in this 1380 battle, which resulted in the victory of grand duke Dmitry‘s (1350-1389) troops over Mamai khan’s (1335-1381) army, Pyotr lost all his sons. Prince Dmitry, who earned the nickname Donskoy, i.e. of the Don, after this victory, married Pyotr to a princess of the Rurik dynasty called Mariya and favoured him with ancestral lands called Gora (“mountain” in Russian) for his alacrity. So the family name Gorsky began with Pyotr Gorsky, while his grandson Prokopy Alfyorovich (1420-1450) was nicknamed Prokuda (among other words “prokaznik” – “prankish” in Russian), so his descendants were called Prokudin-Gorsky.

It is evident from Sergey Mikhaylovich Prokudin-Gorsky’s short biography that until 1890, which was when he was 27, he was being educated in very different disciplines. From 1883-86 he studied in the Alexander Lyceum, from 1886-88 he read lectures in natural sciences at the department of physics-mathematics of Saint Petersburg University, from 1888-90 he was a student at the Imperial Military-Medical Academy, taking painting classes at Imperial Academy of Arts, took a serious interest in playing the violin, but never completed his formal education in any of these places. At Saint Petersburg University one of Sergey Mikhaylovich‘s teachers was the famous scientist Dmitri Mendeleev (1834-1907), and it is said that it was this teacher who initiated his interest in chemistry and photography.

Along the Skuritskhali river. Self-portait. Study at Orta-Batum. 1912. Source: The Library of Congress.

Prokudin-Gorsky became a member of the section dealing with the technology of chemistry, and later that of photography, of the Imperial Russian Technical Society, and from 1897 on he gave lectures on his photographic experiments. In 1901 he opened his “photo-zinkographic and photo-technical studio” in Petersburg. In 1902, while traveling in Germany, he studied with the leading researchers of color photography, especially of Adolf Miethe (1862-1927), and acquired cutting edge technical equipment. The first color photo had been demonstrated way back in 1861. The “color separation” principle used in it proposed taking a photo with red, green and blue filters, and then, during the demonstration, projecting these pictures over each other through the corresponding filters. One of the main problems was the development of photo-emulsions that would have provide a correct rendering of colors, and Prokudin-Gorsky made his contribution in the research in this field.

Prokudin-Gorsky’s three-color projector and the process of projection. Victor Minachin’s design from the exhibition The World of 1900-1917 In Color.

In the following years he arranges color photo-projection demonstrations, travels to different regions of the empire for photo-shoots, organizes the printing of color postcards in his studio. Prokudin-Gorsky becomes even more famous by taking the color photo of the 80-year-old living master of Russian literature Lev Tolstoy (1828-1910) in 1908. He was often invited to receptions and gatherings of high society for the demonstration of his color photo-projections.

“Dear Lev Nikolaevich,
Not long ago I had the occasion to develop a color photographic plate which someone had taken of you (I forgot the person's name). The result was extremely bad, since, apparently, the photographer was not well acquainted with his task.
Photography in natural colors is my specialty, and it is possible that you might have come across my name by chance in print. At the present time, after many years of work, I have been able to achieve an excellent reproduction of images in true colors. My color slide projections are as well known in Europe as they are in Russia.
At this time, now that the process of taking photographs using my method and my plates requires from one to three seconds, I permit myself to ask your permission for me to visit for one or two days (keeping in mind the state of your health and the weather), thereby in order to take several color pictures of you and your spouse…
It seems to me that, by reproducing your image in true color and its surroundings, I will perform a service to the whole world. These images are everlasting – they do not change. No painted reproduction can achieve such results.

Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorsky”

“Village cemetery”. Color postcard from the studio of Prokudin-Gorsky, post stamp 19 January 1907. Source: Library of Congress

A special demonstration for the Emperor Nicholas II and his family in May 1909 gave a critical boost to the researcher’s creative work. Amazed by the color images, the emperor ordered to grant to Sergey Mikhaylovich the transportation expenses and permissions necessary to document in natural colors all the places of interest in Russia. After a few weeks, Prokudin-Gorsky already began his first expedition. He planned to take ten thousand color photos in ten years. Despite financial difficulties, world war and revolutions, Sergey Mikhaylovich collected valuable photographic materials while traveling to different provinces, including several times to Turkestan and the Caucasus, while also working on color cinematography. In 1917 the Romanov dynasty was overthrown, and soon the Bolshevik revolution took place. By that time there were already about 3,500 photos in Prokudin-Gorsky’s unique collection.

Prokudin-Gorsky on a handcar outside Petrozavodsk on the Murmansk railway, 1915. Source: Library of Congress

Prokudin-Gorsky emigrates from Soviet Russia at the first opportunity. In 1918 he is sent on a mission to Norway and never comes back. Later he lives in England, and in France from 1921 until 1944 i.e. the end of his life. Interestingly, the researcher was able to get permission for taking a part of the collection, that is 2,300 negatives, to France. More than 1,200 negatives and more than 1,000 color slides that were left in Soviet Russia, as well as about 400 negatives stored in France are considered lost. In 1948 the US Library of Congress buys from Prokudin-Gorsky’s sons what they have left from the collection. The collection currently preserved in the library consists mainly triple-frame negatives of 1,902 photos. In addition, 14 registration albums contain small black and white copies of these photos with explanations.

These precious historical documents were unknown to the wider public for many years. In 2000 the collection was digitized and put up for open access on the Library of Congress website.

Instagram Azerbaijan, 1912

There are tens of photos related to Azerbaijan in the Prokudin-Gorsky collection. One can learn where they were taken and what they depict, from the explanatory titles under the small black and white “thumbnail” images in the registration photo album entitled “Views in the Caucasus and Black Sea area”.

Page 33 of the “Views in the Caucasus and Black Sea area” album. Source: The Library of Congress.

Most of the images were made in the Mughan steppe in 1912 and are registered on pages 33-38 of the 44-page album. The series starts with the photo “Река Араксъ у Саатлы. Мугань” i.e. “The Aras River near Saatly. Mughan” and mainly depicts cotton farming around Nikolayevsk, Grafovka and Petropavlovsk (today’s Sabirabad, renamed in 1931), where Ukrainian peasants from Kharkov province were settled. By the way, back in 1899 the founder of the Azerbaijani press, the eminent intellectual Hasan Bey Zardabi (1837-1907) mentioned these settlements in his “Kaspi” newspaper article.

Page 38 of the “Views in the Caucasus and Black Sea area” album. Source: The Library of Congress.

Only few of these photos depict people. The picture titled “Персидские татары. Саатлы. Мугань” i.e. “Persian Tatars. Saatly. Mughan” may be regarded as the first color photo of Azerbaijanis known in history. While for many of us color photos appeared in our home albums only in 1980s, the two men in the picture had their color photos taken in the beginning of the century. Although they do not seem pleased by this historic moment. They probably never had the chance to see their color picture, either. Had the Library of Congress not digitized this unique collection and posted it for open access on the internet, probably we would not have the chance, either.

The reconstructed color image of the “Persian Tatars. Saatly. Mughan” photo (left) and the digital file of its triple negative (right, from top to bottom – the images for blue, green and red filter). Source: The Library of Congress.

I saw this picture back in 2010 while in America when I was searching in the Prokudin-Gorsky collection at the library website, but searching for the word “Azerbaijan” seemed to yield only few pictures at that time. The Library of Congress ordered reconstructions of 122 images by the photographer Walter Frankhauser in 2001 for the exhibition named “The Empire That Was Russia”. The reconstruction of the color images, using high resolution digital files of the preserved triple negatives, scanned in 2000, is far from a trivial task.

At the time, three separate image for each photograph were produced for different colors. During the time that passed between taking the shots, in addition to shaking of the negative plate, the photographed subjects moved, too. Various physical defects in the glass negative plates also created difficulties for reconstruction. The photo above depicting Prokudin-Gorsky at a riverside is one of the pictures reconstructed by Frankhausen. Only one of the pictures taken in Azerbaijan – the photo entitled “Mughan. The family of a settler. Grafovka settlement” was reconstructed for the exhibition.

Later, in 2004, the Library of Congress contracted Blaise Agüera y Arcas to perform automated restoration-reconstruction of all the color photos. By the way, as a prominent computer graphics professional, Arcas was in the news in 2013 for taking a job at Google after seven years in leading positions at Microsoft. According to him, along with the “rigid alignment” of the three negatives, the “warpfield alignment” method, which yields better results by deforming different parts of the negatives differently, was employed, using software developed for reconstruction of the photos.

Surprisingly, in the reconstructed “Persian Tatars” photo that is stored in the online database of the Library of Congress, color ghosting is clearly visible because the negatives are not aligned well. It is especially evident when you look at the person on the right. However, as it was shot in bright sunlight, the exposure time of the shots and therefore the differences between three images had to be small, and also there are no serious defects visible on the negatives.

Not giving in to laziness, I opened the triple negative file in Photoshop, cut out its corresponding parts and pasted to the red, green and blue color channels in a new file. By doing just translations, that is by moving the images up-and-down or right-and-left, I aligned them over each other. Apparently for an ideal result you also need to do some slight rotations. But the resulting picture was satisfactory anyway. At the end I darkened the images in the red and green channels a little bit, the result is below.

A fragment of the reconstructed “Persian Tatars” photo. Left: the version of the Library of Congress. Middle: my version. Right: the version restored by V. Ratnikov.

Later I learned that, as part of several different projects researching the Prokudin-Gorsky heritage, the photos were reconstructed and posted on internet. But before that I had to eliminate a small inaccuracy in the Library of Congress catalog.

Researcher A. Yusubov

The titles for the pictures in the Library of Congress catalog are taken from the inscriptions beneath the corresponding black and white thumbnail images in the registration albums. Most probably, these albums were compiled by Prokudin-Gorsky and his assistants long after they were actually shot, since occasionally the titles do not match the pictures, or the chronological order is clearly violated.

Black and white image of the photo with an incorrect title at page 32 of the “Views in the Caucasus and Black Sea area” album (left) and the image of the Shirvanshahs’ Palace complex on the old ten thousand manat banknote, known as “shirvan” among common people (right). Source: The Library of Congress and

Probably any Azerbaijani would testify that the image above depicts the mosque of the Shirvanshahs’ Palace, but this picture is placed among the Tiflis photos in the registration album and its title was registered incorrectly as “Мечеть въ Азiатской части Тифлиса”, that is “A mosque in the Asian part of Tiflis”. However, in the online catalog the title was corrected and the following is written in the notes “Corrected title information provided by Dmitry Vorona, 2013”.

Unfortunately, no color negative of this photo has survived until today, but it shows that Prokudin-Gorsky also shot in Baku. While browsing through the Caucasus album in the online catalog, on page 39 I saw a photo of the Philharmonic building well familiar to Baku dwellers. It turned out that, although there was no explanation regarding this picture in the album, its title was aligned with the title of another photo at the same page and was registered as “Mechetʹ v Vladikavkaze (Mosque in Vladikavkaz)”.

The reconstructed color image of the photo of the Philharmonic building (left) and the digital file of its triple negative (right). Source: The Library of Congress.

I immediately sent the following message, dated 25 March 2015, through the online form for reporting errors in the catalog on the library website:

There is no original title for the photo in Prokudin-Gorskii’s album, but the title was wrongly assigned apparently because of proximity to another photo of the Mosque in Vladikavkaz. 

This is in fact totally different building in a different city – Baku. Look at the rare aerial photo of 1918 Baku. The Summer Centre for Public Gatherings at the bottom right corner, opened in 1912 as a club for wealthy Baku elite, was architecturally inspired by l’Opéra de Monte-Carlo, and now houses the Azerbaijan State Philharmonic Hall named after Muslum Magomayev (1885-1937) – famous Azerbaijani and Soviet composer and conductor (see here). See here the modern look of the building.

And one day later I received the reply email below:

Dear Araz Yusubov: Thank you for your email about the caption for the image by Prokudin-Gorskii (item LC-P87-7277). You are correct that there is no title for the image in the album (LOT 10336) and that the title in the catalog record appears to be have assigned because it was close to the image of the mosque. The mosque is clearly not the same building as depicted in LC-P87-7277.

The building shown in LC-P87-7277 does look like the former Summer Centre for Public Gatherings in Baku, Azerbaijan which is shown in the aerial photo which you sent us. I have updated our database to incorporate your new information. The change should be in the online catalog within a few weeks.

Thank you very much for helping us correct and improve the information for this image in our catalog.

Best wishes,
Arden Alexander
Prints and Photographs Division Library of Congress

Thus, the title of this photo in the Library of Congress catalog now is indicated as “The Summer Centre for Public Gatherings, Baku, Azerbaijan”. There is also a small addition made in the notes section: “Title devised by Library staff. (Source: researcher A. Yusubov, 2015)”.

Other interesting links

“Цвет нации” (“Colors of the nation”) A 2014 Leonid Parfyonov documentary dedicated to Prokudin-Gorsky’s 150th anniversary (in Russian):

Many titles are corrected in the catalog of the reconstructed color photos on the website of the international research project “The Legacy of S.M. Prokudin-Gorsky”:

The color photos reconstructed as part of the “The Russian Empire in color photos” project of the Belorussian orthodox church:

The color photos restored by the laboratory of digital technologies for restoration of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the “Restavrator-M” center:

Prokudin-Gorsky: Self-portrait. Study at the Kivach waterfall. Below: A selection from the Prokudin-Gorsky Collection, primarily from the images less often reproduced on the internet

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Dagestan, village of Arakani

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