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Century-Old Photographs Reveal a Colorful Russian Empire

A man and woman pose outdoors in Dagestan, between 1905-1915. Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii / Library of Congress

Russian Sergey Mikhaylovich Prokudin-Gorsky took these groundbreaking images in the early 20th century in Dagestan, a region of what was then the Russian Empire. The photos, now part of the Library of Congress, are a unique look at Russia on the cusp of the 1917 revolution that would lead to the formation of the Soviet Union.

Image: A Sunni Muslim man wears traditional clothing, circa 1907-1915
A Sunni Muslim man wears traditional clothing, with a sheathed dagger at his side, in Dagestan, in the Caucasus region of the then-Russian Empire. Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii / Library of Congress

Before making these photographs, Prokudin-Gorsky traveled around Europe, learning and furthering the technical processes of photography. In 1907, with the approval of Tsar Nicholas II and a custom darkroom in a railroad car, Prokudin-Gorsky roamed the Russian Empire with his camera in hopes that students would eventually learn about the diverse cultures of the sprawling land.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the series is that while the original photographs were captured in black and white, they were made in such a way that the final product was in vivid color. For each scene, three separate photographs were made in rapid succession, each with a different color filter. Filtered light (red, green and blue) was then shown through three different glass panes and a single color image would be projected on a wall. Head over to the Library of Congress for a complete description of the process. The photographs on this post are digital composites from scans of the glass plates.

Image: A group of women pose outside in Dagestan, circa 1907-1915
A group of women pose outside in Dagestan, around 1905-1915. Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii / Library of Congress

Image: A view of Sochi, around 1905-1915.
A view of Sochi, around 1905-1915. Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii / Library of Congress

Image: A view of Sochi and the coast of the Black Sea, around 1905-1915.
A view of Sochi and the coast of the Black Sea, around 1905-1915. Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii / Library of Congress