May Allah have mercy on you, Prokudin-Gorsky

Some of our super-knowledgeable kinsmen, hearing this “Allah rəhmət eləsin“, probably will hurry to say “he doesn’t qualify for rəhmət“, but this expression in our language takes its roots from Arabic “رحمة الله عليه”, that is a wish “May Allah have mercy on him” about somebody who passed away. And if this wish has already reached its destination – the all-hearing and the all-seeing the most merciful of all-merciful, there is no place for needless talks.

Mirza Jalil also started his story titled “Qurbanəli bəy” in 1907 with the epigraph “Qoqol, Allah sənə rəhmət eləsin” i.e. “Gogol, may Allah have mercy on you”. It is evident that the criticizing, satirical writings by the classic of the Russian literature Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol (1809-1852) had a big influence on the creative life of Jalil Mammadguluzade (1869-1932) and stimulated the birth of the “Molla Nəsrəddin” literary school.

Sergey Mikhaylovich Prokudin-Gorsky (1863-1944) is considered as one of the pioneers of the color photography in the world. The reason we wish him “rəhmət” is that he is the author of probably the first known to the history color photos of Azerbaijan and Azerbaijanis.

Who is Prokudin-Gorsky?

It is interesting that Prokudin-Gorsky family takes its roots from a Tatar grand duke Murza Musa (1350-?), who together with his sons came to the Duchy of Moscow from the Golden Horde and adopted Orthodox Christianity and the name of Pyotr. So the crescent and star on the family coat of arms is a reference to Tatar roots, while the symbolic depiction of a river is a reference to the Nepryadva, a tributary of the Don river, and to participation in the Battle of Kulikovo. It is said that in this 1380 battle, which resulted in the victory of grand duke Dmitry‘s (1350-1389) troops over Mamai khan’s (1335-1381) army, Pyotr lost all his sons. Prince Dmitry, who earned a nickname of Donskoy i.e. of the Don after this victory, married Pyotr to a princess of the Rurik dynasty called Mariya and favoured him with ancestral lands called Gora (“mountain” in Russian) for his eagerness. So the family name of Gorsky starts with Pyotr Gorsky, his grand-son Prokopy Alfyorovich (1420-1450) nicknamed Prokuda (with other words “prokaznik” – “prankish” in Russian) and descendants of the latter are called Prokudin-Gorsky.

It is evident from Sergey Mikhaylovich Prokudin-Gorsky‘s short biography that till 1890, which is till he was 27 he was getting education in very different directions. In 1883-86 he studies in the Alexander Lyceum, in 1886-88 he is a hearer at lectures on the natural sciences at the department of physics-mathematics of Saint Petersburg University, in 1888-90 he is a student at Imperial Military-Medical Academy, takes painting classes at Imperial Academy of Arts, takes serious interest in playing violin, and never completes his formal education in any of these places. At Saint Petersburg University one of Sergey Mikhaylovich‘s teachers was the famous scientist Dmitri Mendeleev (1834-1907), and it is said that namely this teacher was the initiator of his interest in chemistry and photography.

Along the Skuritskhali river. Etude. Orta-Batum. 1912.

Along the Skuritskhali river. Etude. Orta-Batum. 1912. Source: The Library of Congress.

Prokudin-Gorsky, becoming a member of the chemistry-technology and later the photography sections of Imperial Russian Technical Society, starting from 1897 gives lectures on his photographic experiments. In 1901 his “photo-zinkographic and photo-technical studio” is opened in Petersburg. In 1902 while traveling to Germany he studies practices of the leading color photography researchers, especially of Adolf Miethe (1862-1927), and acquires cutting edge technical equipment.

The first color photo was demonstrated way back in 1861. The “color separation” principle used proposes taking a photo with red, green and blue filters, and demonstrating it by projecting these pictures over each other through corresponding filters. One of the main problems was development of photo-emulsions that would let correct transmission of colors, and Prokudin-Gorsky made his contribution to the research in this direction.

In the following years he arranges color photo-projection demonstrations, travels to different regions of the empire for photo-shootings, organizes printing of color postcards in his studio. Prokudin-Gorsky becomes even more famous by taking the color photo of the 80 years old living classic of the Russian literature Lev Tolstoy (1828-1910) in 1908. He often is invited to receptions-gatherings of the high society for demonstrating color photo-projections.

A special demonstration for the Emperor Nikolai II and his family in May 1909 gave a critical boost to the researcher’s creative work. Amazed by the color images, the emperor orders granting Sergey Mikhaylovich transportation expenses and permissions needed to document in natural colors all places of interest of Russia. After few weeks Prokudin-Gorsky already starts his first expedition. It was planned to take ten thousand color photos in ten years. Despite financial difficulties, world war and revolutions Sergey Mikhaylovich collects valuable photo-materials while traveling to different provinces, including to Turkestan and Caucasus several times, works on color cinematography. In 1917 the rule of Romanov dynasty was overthrown, and later Bolshevik revolution took place. By that time there were already about 3,500 photos in Prokudrin-Gorsky‘s unique collection.

Prokudin-Gorsky emigrates from the Soviet Russia at the first opportunity, in 1918 he is sent on a mission to Norway and never comes back. Later he lives in England, and in France from 1921 till 1944 i.e. till the end of his life. Interestingly, the researcher was able to get permission for bringing part of the collection, that is 2,300 negatives to France. More than 1,200 negatives and more than 1,000 color slides left in the Soviet Russia, as well as about 400 negatives stored in France are considered lost. In 1948 the US Library of Congress buys from Prokudin-Gorsky‘s sons what they have got left from the collection. The collection currently preserved in the library consists mainly triple-frame negatives of 1,902 photos. Besides, 14 registration albums contain small black and white copies of these photos with explanations.

These precious historical photo-documents were unknown to wider public for many years. In 2000 the collection was digitized and put for open access at the Library of Congress website.

Instagram Azerbaijan, 1912

There are tens of photos related to Azerbaijan in the Prokudin-Gorsky collection. One can learn where were they taken and what they depict from the explanatory titles under small black and white “thumbnail” images in the registration photo-album titled “Views in the Caucasus and Black Sea area”.

Page 33 of the “Views in the Caucasus and Black Sea area” album. Source: The Library of Congress.

Page 33 of the “Views in the Caucasus and Black Sea area” album. Source: The Library of Congress.

Most of the photos are taken in the Mughan steppe in 1912 and are registered at pages 33-38 of the 44-page album. The series start with a photo “Река Араксъ у Саатлы. Мугань” i.e. “The Aras River near Saatly. Mughan” and mainly depict cotton farming around Nikolayevsk, Grafovka and Petropavlovsk (today’s Sabirabad that was renamed in 1931), where Ukrainian peasants moved from the Kharkov province were settled. By the way, back in 1899 the founder of Azerbaijani press, eminent intellectual Hasan Bey Zardabi (1837-1907) mentioned these settlements in his “Kaspi” newspaper article.

Page 38 of the “Views in the Caucasus and Black Sea area” album. Source: The Library of Congress.

Page 38 of the “Views in the Caucasus and Black Sea area” album. Source: The Library of Congress.

Only few of these photos depict people. The picture titled “Персидские татары. Саатлы. Мугань” i.e. “Persian Tatars. Saatly. Mughan” can be regarded as the first color photo of Azerbaijanis known to the history. While for many of us color photos appeared in our home albums only in 1980s, the two men on the picture had their color photos taken in the beginning of the century. Although they do not seem to be pleased by this historic moment. They probably did not have a chance also to see their color pictures. Would not the Library of Congress digitize this unique collection and post for open access in the internet, probably we would not have a chance, too.

The reconstructed color image of the “Persian Tatars. Saatly. Mughan” photo (left) and the digital file of its triple negative (right). Source: The Library of Congress.

The reconstructed color image of the “Persian Tatars. Saatly. Mughan” photo (left) and the digital file of its triple negative (right, from top to bottom – the images for blue, green and red filter). Source: The Library of Congress.


I have seen this picture back in 2010 while in America when I searched the Prokudin-Gorsky collection at the library website, but searching for the word “Azerbaijan” seemed to yield only few pictures at that time. The Library of Congress ordered reconstruction of 122 images to photographer Walter Frankhauser in 2001 for the exhibition named “The Empire That Was Russia”. Reconstructing color images using the scanned in 2000 in high resolution digital files of the preserved triple negatives is far from being a trivial task.

At the time, three separate pictures of each photo were shot for different colors. During the time passing between the shots besides the shaking of the negative the photographed objects moved, too. Various physical defects of the glass negative plates also added difficulties for reconstruction. The photo above depicting Prokudin-Gorsky at a river side is also one of the pictures reconstructed by Frankhausen. Only one of the pictures taken in Azerbaijan – the photo titled “Mughan. The family of a settler. Grafovka settlement” was reconstructed for the exhibition.

Later, in 2004 the Library of Congress contracted Blaise Agüera y Arcas for automated restoration-reconstruction of all the color photos. By the way, a prominent computer graphics professional Blaise was in the news in 2013 for moving to “Google” after seven years in leading positions at “Microsoft”. According to him, along with the “rigid alignment” of the three negatives the “warpfield alignment” method, which yields better results by deforming different parts of the negatives differently, was used in the software developed for reconstruction of the photos.

Surprisingly in the reconstructed “Persian Tatars” photo that is stored in the online database of the Library of Congress color ghosting is clearly visible because negatives are not aligned well. It is especially evident when you look at the person on the right. However, as it was shot in the bright sunlight the exposure time of the shots and therefore the differences between three images had to be small, also there are no serious defects visible on the negatives.

Without giving up to laziness I opened the triple negative file in “Photoshop” program, cut its corresponding parts and pasted to the red, green and blue color channels in a new file. By doing just translations, that is by moving the images up-and-down or right-and-left I aligned them over each-other. Apparently for an ideal result you also need to do some slight rotations. But the resulting picture was satisfactory anyway. Those who want to finalize the work may want to download the file here. At the end I darkened the images in the red and green channels a little bit, the result is below.

A fragment of the reconstructed “Persian Tatars” photo. Left: the version of the Library of Congress. Middle: my version. Right: the version restored by V.Ratnikov.

A fragment of the reconstructed “Persian Tatars” photo. Left: the version of the Library of Congress. Middle: my version. Right: the version restored by V.Ratnikov.

Later I learned that as part of several different projects, which research the Prokudin-Gorsky heritage, the photos were reconstructed and posted on internet. But before that I had to eliminate a small inaccuracy in the Library of Congress catalog.

Researcher A.Yusubov

The titles for pictures in the Library of Congress catalog are taken from the inscriptions beneath the corresponding black and white thumbnail images in the registration albums. Most probably these albums were compiled by Prokudin-Gorsky and his assistants long after the actual shootings, since occasionally the titles do not match pictures or the chronological order is clearly violated.

Black and white image of the photo with an incorrect title at page 32 of the “Views in the Caucasus and Black Sea area” album (left) and the image of the Shirvanshahs' Palace complex on the old ten thousand manat banknote (right). Source: The Library of Congress and BanknoteIndex.com.

Black and white image of the photo with an incorrect title at page 32 of the “Views in the Caucasus and Black Sea area” album (left) and the image of the Shirvanshahs’ Palace complex on the old ten thousand manat banknote, known as “shirvan” among common people (right). Source: The Library of Congress and BanknoteIndex.com.

Probably any Azerbaijani would testify that the image above depicts the mosque in the Shirvanshahs’ Palace, but this picture is placed among Tiflis photos in the registration album
and its title incorrectly was registered as “Мечеть въ Азiатской части Тифлиса”, that is “A mosque in the Asian part of Tiflis”. However, in the online catalog the title was corrected and the following is written in the notes “Corrected title information provided by Dmitry Vorona, 2013”.

Unfortunately, no color negative of this photo survived to our days, but it shows that Prokudin-Gorsky was shooting also in Baku. While browsing through the Caucasus album in the online catalog I saw a photo of the Philharmonic building well familiar to Baku dwellers at page 39. It turned out that although there is no explanation regarding this picture in the album, its title was aligned with the title of another photo at the same page and was registered as “Mechetʹ v Vladikavkazi︠e︡ (Mosque in Vladikavkaz)”.

The reconstructed color image of the photo of the Philharmonic building (left) and the digital file of its triple negative (right). Source: The Library of Congress.

The reconstructed color image of the photo of the Philharmonic building (left) and the digital file of its triple negative (right). Source: The Library of Congress.


Without any delay I sent the following message dated 25 March 2015 through the online form for reporting errors in the catalog at the library website:

There is no original title for the photo in Prokudin-Gorskii’s album, but the title was wrongly assigned apparently because of proximity to another photo of the Mosque in Vladikavkaz.

This is in fact totally different building in a different city – Baku. Look at the rare aerial photo of 1918 Baku. The Summer Centre for Public Gatherings at the bottom right corner, opened in 1912 as a club for wealthy Baku elite, was architecturally inspired by l’Opéra de Monte-Carlo, and now houses the Azerbaijan State Philharmonic Hall named after Muslum Magomayev (1885-1937) – famous Azerbaijani and Soviet composer and conductor (see here). See here the modern look of the building.

And one day later I received the reply email below:

Dear Araz Yusubov: Thank you for your email about the caption for the image by Prokudin-Gorskii (item LC-P87-7277). You are correct that there is no title for the image in the album (LOT 10336) and that the title in the catalog record appears to be have assigned because it was close to the image of the mosque. The mosque is clearly not the same building as depicted in LC-P87-7277.

The building shown in LC-P87-7277 does look like the former Summer Centre for Public Gatherings in Baku, Azerbiajan which is shown in the aerial photo which you sent us. I have updated our database to incorporate your new information. The change should be in the online catalog within a few weeks.

Thank you very much for helping us correct and improve the information for this image in our catalog.

Best wishes,

Arden Alexander
Cataloger
Prints and Photographs Division Library of Congress

Thus, the title of this photo in the Library of Congress catalog now is indicated as “The Summer Centre for Public Gatherings, Baku, Azerbaijan”. There is also a small addition made in the notes section: “Title devised by Library staff. (Source: researcher A. Yusubov, 2015)”.

Other interesting links

“Цвет нации” (“Painter of the nation”) A 2014 Leonid Parfyonov documentary dedicated to Prokudin-Gorsky’s 150 years anniversary (in Russian) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qx0TbbRC5RE

Many titles are corrected in the catalog of reconstructed color photos on the website of the international research project “The Legacy of S.M.Prokudin-Gorsky” http://prokudin-gorsky.org/

The color photos reconstructed as part of the “The Russian Empire in color photos” project of the Belorussian orthodox church http://veinik.by/

The color photos restored by the laboratory of digital technologies for restoration of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the “Restavrator-M” center http://www.prokudin-gorsky.ru/

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