Thursday, 22 March 2012

Glimpses of a forgotten past

I recently came across a fascinating archive of colour photos, all taken in pre-Soviet Russia circa 1910. The photographer, Sergei Prokudin-Gorski, developed his own colour process using filters and three separate plates - it has taken the advent of digital technology to produce a clear colour composite from the process and now the photos, all in the archive of the Library of Congress, sparkle as if they were taken yesterday. I've been on a Russian reading jag recently - I especially enjoyed Orlando Figes's A People's Tragedy - and these photos depict how strange and often backward, to Western eyes, Russian culture was.

Cotton was a major contributor to the Russian economy. Throughout this period Russian agriculture was primitive, as in many areas a system of collective ownership, or Obschchina, tended to remove incentive to develop arable land. The cotton and dyeing industry is poorly-documented, but Prokudin-Gorski's photos provide a tantalising glimpse.

This is the interior of a textile mill - using the local cotton - probably in Tashkent. Any guesses as to the machines and particular parts of the process gratefully received!

 A cotton field, in the Sukhumi Botanical Garden.

I love this photo of a fabric merchant at the Samarkand market, because the colours are all true, not hand-tinted. Note the framed page from the Koran at the top of the stall. Like the others, this photo was taken around 1910 and depicted a way of life that more or less disappeared within a decade.

Other glimpses of the diversity of culture in the pre-War period

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