This is our final glimpse at the work and life of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorsky (well, for now at least). Last week we left Gorsky’s life at a point where he had begun to establish himself in the ever-blooming arena of colour photography, seeking out expert tuition in Germany to further his aims.
Having returned from Berlin in 1902, he continued work in his St Petersburg studio and maintained connections in photographic and scientific circles, both within Russia and Europe. He gave exhibitions, demonstrations and talks to both professional and enthusiast parties, becoming a renowned practitioner within his field. The Imperial Russian Technical Society ultimately elected him president in 1906 – an acknowledgment of his achievements and another milestone in his career. This was doubly enforced by the publishers of the premier Fotograf-Liubitel journal, with their decision to accept him as editor.
The careers of photographers are sometimes associated with, or even defined (unfairly) by a single image that penetrates the greater public consciousness. This can work to a photographer’s advantage of course; in the case of Gorsky it was his 1908 colour photograph of Leo Tolstoy, sitting relaxed, outside in a wooden arm chair. A simple enough shot that became greater than the sum of its parts in terms of career payoff, bringing interest (and more) from Russia’s royal family.
This image, coupled with earlier ‘documentary’ images of Russian life led him to present his work to Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich and Empress Maria Feodorovna in 1908, and in the following year; to the ill-fated Tsar Nicholas II and family.
We have come to know Gorsky’s images through this pivotal moment. The impression left upon the Tsar resulted in Royal patronage of what would become Gorsky’s defining project; his life’s work. He was granted royal approval, permission and funding to extensively document Russian life in colour, a mammoth project undertaken over ten years (though arguably with no upper limit) that resulted in an archive of over 10,000 photographs that we can enjoy today.
Although the royal family facilitated and patronised this dream project, it was ironically the Bolsheviks (the supposed voice of the people whom Gorsky was photographing) who brought the endeavour to and end with a rather inconvenient revolution in 1917.
Recognising his obvious mastery of the photographic process as it stood at the time; the fledgling communist government granted him an official professorship (under their auspices, naturally), but the appointment didn’t last. Gorsky left Russia in less than a year later at the age of 55 minus wife and family – and a good portion of negatives confiscated by the Soviets!
His life outside Russia saw a flight to Germany followed by a resettlement and re-marriage to his assistant in Paris. A somewhat bizarre situation, especially in light of the subsequent reunion on “good terms” with his former spouse and children after they too left their homeland.
His work nonetheless progressed within his new studio (named Elka after the child born from his new marriage) and resulted in published papers, images and patents within Europe. These were co-authored with colleague S. O. Maksimovich and largely featured innovations within the field of colour motion-pictures, interestingly enough. Gorsky had cemented his role as innovator.
His later years would see him poignantly displaying images of Russia to fellow exiles within France, after leaving his field photography behind due to the burdens of his old age. Gorsky died in 1944. The bulk of his surviving work is housed at the Library of Congress.