Have you seen the photographic work of Sergey Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorsky? It’s really quite something. He is most famous for his early 20th Century images documenting life in pre and post Soviet Russia. That’s the overriding feeling throughout his work; one of documentary.
Forget the notion of artistic statement; though that’s not a criticism. Art isn’t the point here. That would rise to prominence a little later (1920’s) with the photographic work of Man Ray and fellow surrealists. The contrast between approaches is often poles apart. With Gorsky’s work there’s more of a sense of recording the facts as they stood at the time; as if he knew that you would be sitting here looking at them right now, 100 years later.
The big draw here is the fact that most of the images are in colour, some even look like they could have been created in the 1950’s – when (printed) colour photography as we regard it today was transitioning from the specialist/lab to the home user. Perhaps Gorsky was an early photojournalist then? Certainly he was an early adopter of the “three-colour principle”, a method of producing colour images that still has relevance in the modern printing industry.
The process works by capturing three black and white transparencies (monochrome, bear with me) of the same scene, each one taken through a corresponding red, green or blue colour filter respectively. Yes it is/was possible to swap the filter on a single camera for each exposure – but such ‘fiddling about’ introduced movement/vibration errors into the process as well as time-based problems. By the time three consecutive photographs have been taken, the subject or scene may have changed slightly (or even significantly). No problem if you are photographing rocks, but not so good if you wish to record human life in Russia circa 1900.
Some of Gorsky’s work does exhibit these kind of errors so it’s reasonable to assume some form of sequential process was utilised for at least some of his work. As the process was refined, enthusiasts would assemble systems allowing a triumvirate of images to be captured simultaneously, or at least in the shortest workable timeframe.
Regardless of the intricacies of the photomechanical system; the result was three glass transparencies, each with a different grayscale representation of the the same scene. The colour image was reconstituted in (appropriately) three principle ways.
Three projectors (or a single tri-image projector) were employed to throw the individual images onto a screen/wall in (hopefully) perfect registration. Each image would be cast in filtered light that matched the colour of the original exposure: red, green or blue. The grayscale of the corresponding slide determines the intensity of the filtered light across the image as it passes through. By simply overlaying projections from all colour channels, a representation of the original scene is ‘mixed’ into existence.
In a physical reversal of the above process, the colour channels were optically combined in a photo-chromoscope (aka: chromoscope) – a compact single-user viewer that was the forerunner of the 3D View-master and even the modern VR headset.
If a hard copy of the original scene was desired, then the registered images were combined onto photographic paper through complementary colored filters (ie: in negative). So red, green and blue translates to cyan, magenta and yellow respectively. This subtractive process also applies to mechanical printing techniques, where complementary colours are overlaid to re-create the initial image in print.
We will get deeper into Gorsky’s life and work next week, but for now just enjoy a taster of his images here.