On Light and Dark: the historicity of colour and non-colour photographs

by Kaleigh Bradley on December 15, 2010

What makes photography a strange invention is that its primary raw materials are light and time. – John Berger

Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. Peasant Girls, 1909. Digital color rendering. Prints and Photographs Division (LC-DIG-ppmsc-03984) (4)

A few months ago, one of my contacts on Facebook shared a link to the Prokudin-Gorskii Digital Photographic Collection, which is available online through the Library of Congress. What struck me the about the collection was that the photographs, appearing in beautiful  vibrant colours, were taken prior to the First World War. That’s right: these photos are over 100 years old. The introductory text provided by the Library of Congress tells me that I’m looking at images that “offer a vivid portrait of a lost world – the Russian Empire on the eve of World War I and the coming Revolution.”

There’s something about a colour photo that makes it feel more recent; closer to our own lifetime; more alive. When I think about this concept I know it’s ridiculous, but I adhere to it subconsciously. I think about the way I’m seeing these images and it occurs to me that I have certain expectations – cultural cues and codes my mind has been trained to see – as an observer of images in the 21st century. I assume that these images were taken after the 1950s (at least) in some rural corner of Russia. Perhaps they were staged. But the text and dates associated with the photographs remind me that I’m wrong. The text and my understanding of the image resist one another.  James Clifford argues that photographs as objects offer cultural context to the observer and that they are:

…coded historically according to style and colour. Sepia tones suggest the nineteenth century; sharp black and white registers a nearer documentary past; “true” colour with candid or casual poses connotes contemporary history. Faded colour, for my generation at least, has a “fifties” resonance…

True black and white images, I might add, also connote death. They appear to be from a distant time and it is almost safe to assume that their subjects are deceased. That is why I was shocked to see these girls, who were born at the turn of the 20th century, standing in their beautiful dresses – in colour. Light and Dark; life and death; these binaries are constantly being referred to within the rhetoric of photographic theory. Black and white photos are associated with the past; they are historic and belong to lives long lived and gone.

These vibrant images challenge my gaze. They resist my cultural coding. Going back to the introductory text which tells me I’m looking at something that’s been lost, I think about the act of taking a photograph, the technology, the light, and the capturing of these images. Does the act of photographing something bring it to life? Does light equal preservation? Did Prokudin-Gorskii’s act of photographing these places, people, and landscapes bring them to life?  Did it ensure that images of pre-World War I Russia would endure within our collective memory? The Library of Congress contextualizes these images for me as being exotic and of great historical value. Surely this is not what the photographer had in mind.

Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. On the Karolitskhali River, ca. 1907-1915. Digital color rendering. Prints and Photographs Division (LC-DIG-ppmsc-03991) (1)

With my limited knowledge of the history of photographic technology, I think I have a basic grasp of how Prokudin-Gorskii attempted to produce these images, thanks to the explanations provided here. From what I understand, he meant for these images to be seen in colour (which is really fascinating) because he used red, blue, and green filters over his glass plate negatives (this was an innovative technique given the technology that was available to him at the time). In order to produce a colour image these three plates were juxtaposed over each other digitally in a process called digichromatography.

This process was undertaken by the Library of Congress although there is nothing on their website that provides me with information dealing these details. Interesting that it took several decades before these images could be seen as their author had intended. Even more interesting is that they do not exist as objects, but as digital images that I can view 100 years after they were taken. Something about this seems strange. I find the Library of Congress’ contextualization of these photos problematic, especially the insertion of a narrative that inscribes new meanings. I wish they would have left them for me to contextualize on my own. In addition, these images are categorized into different themes (I’m wondering if the photographer organized his collection in this way). One of these themes, “ethnic diversity” is very interesting; it’s as though the viewer is supposed to understand the subject(s) as being from another race. The theme of “ethnic diversity” inadvertently racializes the subject for me as the observer.

I think about Prokudin-Gorskii and how he did not get to see his vision materialize during his lifetime. The narrative that he intended to tell, however, appears within the pages of albums he compiled during his travels.

Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. Views Along the Murmansk Railway, 1915. Photo album. Prints and Photographs Division (59)

Work Cited

Clifford, James Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 157-58.

Further Reading

If you are interested in photographic theory (a critical examination of photographs and the use of photographs) you may wish to start with Susan Sontag’s On Photography and Roland Barthe’s Camera Lucida, two foundational texts. John Tagg’s The Burden of Representation is a critical investigation of the use of photographs by governments and their institutions. Allan Sekula explores “ways of seeing,” that is how we contextualize photographs in “The Invention of Photographic Meaning,” appearing in Photography and Print. If you’re interested in how photography, particularly ethnographic photography, can shape ideas of race, Elizabeth Edwards’ Photography, Anthropology and History is a great place to start.

For photo albums and family narratives, check out Martha Langford’s Suspended Conversations and Marianne Hirsch’s Family Frames. Finally, Peter Geller’s book Northern Exposures is a compelling study of how photography (along with film) in early 20th century Canada, shaped ideas of north and “arcticness.”

Kaleigh Bradley is completing her M.A. in Public History at Carleton University and is the research assistant for the Carleton Centre for Public History. Her research explores social memory, place, and photography in Northern Labrador.

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