In the decades leading up to the October Revolution, the Russian Empire was already crumbling. The first 15 years of the 20th century saw two major industrial crises give way to economic collapse as the Romanov Tsar Nicholas II pitched the military into wars with Japan and Germany, slowing production and inflicting food shortages. Two revolutions in 1917 effectively vanquished the monarchy at the climax of World War I, resulting in the dissolution of the empire and the formation of the Soviet Union.
Before that upheaval, two Russian photographers, Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky and Maxim Dmitriev, rose to prominence by documenting everyday life under late tsarism. Though they were contemporaries, their work presents very different perspectives on the region. Prokudin-Gorsky’s images are high-definition and undeniably gorgeous, as well as some of the first color photographs in Russia. In contrast, Dmitriev’s pictures of peasant villages lay bare the dismal living conditions for the majority of the empire. The archives of these two men and the disparities in their personal histories exemplify early photography’s use as both imperialist propaganda and documentary journalism.
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Born into a noble family in Murom, Prokudin-Gorsky studied chemistry at the Saint Petersburg State Institute of Technology and art at the Imperial University of Arts. He married the daughter of an industrialist and became director of his father-in-law’s executive board. From there he joined the Imperial Russian Technology Society (IRTS), the preeminent scientific organization of the time, where he gained access to cutting-edge camera technology. Within a few years, he became president of IRTS’s photography section and an editor at Russia’s predominant photo journal, Fotograf-Liubitel (Amateur Photographer).
These prestigious positions led Prokudin-Gorsky to exhibit his photography for Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich and Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, as well as Nicholas II and his family. The tsar admired his work so much that he commissioned the photographer to document Russia’s vast population and landscapes. From 1909 to 1915, Prokudin-Gorsky created more than 10,000 color photos of the diverse people and places comprising the empire, which at the time covered nearly 23 million square kilometers of Europe and Asia. Nicholas provided Prokudin-Gorsky with a railroad car darkroom, where he could create vibrant color projections by adding red, green, and blue filters to black-and-white exposures. Much of his work was intended to educate schoolchildren on Russia’s array of cultures and its burgeoning modernization. The quality of these images, along with their pristine compositions, create a visual leveling effect across class divisions, depicting each walk of life as beautiful in its own way.
Despite their unique character, these images nonetheless feel very staged. Portraits of peasants show them posing together and looking directly at the camera, seemingly transcending their economic status through aesthetic uplift — a sort of poverty with dignity. A portrait of Sayyid Mir Muhammad Alim Khan, the last emir of the Uzbek Manghit dynasty, uses nearly the same composition and color textures as a portrait of a commoner smoking a hookah on a Samarkand street. A striking portrait of Leo Tolstoy, taken two years before his death, shows the War and Peace author seated in a pastoral outdoor setting. The high-resolution image captures every small sign of old age in Tolstoy’s hands and face, a stunning accomplishment for 1908.
While Prokudin-Gorsky’s upbringing fast-tracked him to national recognition, Dmitriev’s more humble beginnings led him in a different direction. Born a commoner in Tambov, he worked for his bread from a young age, weaving baskets and reading hymns over the dead. In spite of these time constraints, he excelled in his studies, and at 15 he became an apprentice to acclaimed Russian photographers M.P. Nastyukov and later Andrei Karelin. Working in their studios expanded his knowledge of development techniques like soaking plates, processing, and retouching.
In 1879, Dmitriev relocated to Nizhny Novgorod and began shooting scenes of everyday life — sea and landscapes, orthodox and Muslim ceremonies, monks on pilgrimage, and workers along the Volga River. After developing a portfolio, he traveled to Paris and participated in a few group exhibitions. His photos of prison construction workers caused a stir among viewers; some were critical of the content, others moved by their honesty. Returning to Russia, he continued to shoot unconventional scenes of suffering. His monograph A Lean Year documented a small village suffering a bad harvest. Starving peasants appear in rags alongside doctors and social workers rationing bread and caring for the sick in rundown houses.
The Bolshevik Revolution impacted both photographers’ careers, as the Soviet Union birthed new paradigms around inequality and political art. Dmitriev’s work from the 1890s remains some of the earliest examples of photojournalism in Russia, wherein the visual exposure of inequality shifted public opinion, and he remained in Nizhny Novgorod till his death. Meanwhile, Prokudin-Gorsky lost his funding with the execution of the Romanov family and resettled in Paris.
Dmitriev’s photos predate the Progressive Era in the West, when photography helped usher in robust social reforms necessitated by industrialization. Prokudin-Gorsky avoided these more dismal aspects of peasant life to sell more empire, which partially explains why his images are so impeccable. This feels like a poignant representation of how corporate media works today, in which a pretty image can replace a more meaningful critique of inequality. It also represents how photography continues to function in the art market, with an image of suffering catching a pretty penny with the right amount of style.
Today, Prokudin-Gorsky remains a visionary of color photography and checks all the boxes of a Western icon, while Dmitriev has all but faded into obscurity. Incidentally, the US Library of Congress acquired Prokudin-Gorsky’s archives in 1948, and Dmitriev’s work is barely findable online. It seems strange that Dmitriev would not be more well-known as a precursor to 20th-century social reformers, but the Soviet avant-garde would quickly overtake both photographers in style and substance, rushing the medium headlong into a new era.