After last week’s introduction to the remarkable work and technique of Sergey Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorsky, it’s worth taking a closer look at the man himself. Born in 1863, Gorsky was cast into the relative privilege of Russian nobility, adopting one of the oldest noble family names. His lineage dated back over five centuries with an extended military history serving Tsar and country, and holding an established ancestral home in a region known today as Vladimir Oblast. Vladimir itself is one the ‘Golden Ring’ cities, east of Moscow, its ‘Oblast’ is the associated administrative district surrounding it – similar in our understanding to the terms county, province or state.
Moving north to St Petersburg allowed the young Gorsky to attend the Alexander Lyceum, then the city’s Institute of Technology (1886) and its Imperial Academy of Arts. The combination of physics, maths and chemistry at the former and painting at the latter (where he also studied music) makes perfect sense in light of his later photographic career. His interest in the sciences would quite literally end his musical aspirations however, when an accident in the chemistry lab damaged his hand badly enough to prevent him from playing the violin. He would also attend the Imperial Military Medical Academy in 1888, but without subsequent graduation. 1890 saw him enter the Russian civil service where he would remain for over ten years.
The combined art and science of photography was still in its relative infancy during Gorsky’s childhood – the monochrome photographic process in its entirety had only been established in 1826 by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (famous for View from the Window at Gras et al). As such, Gorsky was primarily a photographic enthusiast and devotee, although later he would also become an inventor within the field, thereby contributing to the art/science-form from both sides of the glass plate.
In 1890 he married Anna, daughter of industrialist Aleksandr Stepanovich Lavrov, a union that benefitted Gorsky in several ways. Aside from providing him a wife, the senior Lavrov was also a dedicated member of the Imperial Russian Technical Society, whose photographic arm was Russia’s longest established organisation devoted to the (relatively) new medium. After first joining its Chemical Engineering Section, Gorsky became increasingly drawn to photography, joining the society in 1898 and subsequently lecturing and presenting papers therein.
He also found additional employment at Lavrov‘s Gatchina steel works – no, not on the factory floor, but rather as director of the board of executives (a post befitting the favoured son-in-law of a rich industrialist). That particular party would be swiftly over when the Bolsheviks arrived, but for the immediate future it would suffice. It also caused him to relocate to Gatchina (30 miles South of St. Petersburg), although his main job was still in the city.
Something of a turning point came during the early years of the new century. In 1901 Gorsky opened the “Photozinkographic and Phototechnical Studio” which included its own chemical laboratory. In 1902 he departed for a six week stay in Germany under the tuition of renowned professor Adolf Miethe.
Based in Berlin, Miethe was Germany’s most prominent exponent in the field of photochemistry and provided Gorsky with expert tutelage in the subject of colour photography, sensitisation (photographic plates are coated with light sensitive chemicals) and crucially; the three-colour process that would subsequently define Gorsky’s most famous work. In fact, Miethe had created a self-contained 3-colour camera the year before. Word had obviously reached the ears of Gorsky himself. He would subsequently praise and credit Miethe and his method at IRTS meetings. This milestone in his career sees Gorsky again as an enthusiast and adopter of the established method; however, his own innovations were yet to come, adding to a field that had already started several decades earlier.
Colour photography had officially arrived with the first stable print (of a tartan ribbon) taken by Thomas Sutton in 1861, although the principle behind 3-colour photography had been unofficially coined by James Clerk Maxwell as far back as 1855. Indeed, initial experiments into photographic colour per se started in the 1840s. These things take time.
More on Sergey Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorsky next week.