William Craft Brumfield is Professor of Slavic Studies at Tulane University. Brumfield, who began photographing Russia in 1970, is the foremost authority in the West on Russian architecture. He is the author, editor, and photographer of numerous books, including Architecture at the End of the Earth: Photographing the Russian North and Lost Russia: Photographing the Ruins of Russian Architecture, both also published by Duke University Press. In 2019 he was awarded the Russian state Order of Friendship medal—the highest decoration of the Russian Federation given to foreign nationals—for his study and promotion of Russia’s cultural legacy. Brumfield’s photographs of Russian architecture have been exhibited at numerous galleries and museums and are part of the Image Collections at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. In this Q&A, he discusses his new book Journeys through the Russian Empire: The Photographic Legacy of Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, a lavishly illustrated volume featuring hundreds of full-color images of Russian architecture and landscapes taken by early-twentieth-century photographer Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky juxtaposed against those of his own.
Tell us about Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky and why he embarked on his photographic journeys.
Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorsky was born in 1863 on his family’s estate in central Russia. As a member of the middle nobility, he received a good education with emphasis on technical subjects. Study in Germany and France deepened his research in chemistry, optics and color theory with the goal of creating a camera for color images. Taking a prototype developed by the German chemist Adolf Miethe, Prokudin-Gorsky devised a reliable, if cumbersome, camera.
Yet Prokudin-Gorsky did not stop with the invention, which he saw as the means to an end. He conceived a grand project that would apply the technology to photographic documentation of the Russian Empire in its vast diversity. During the decade before World War I he engaged in a blur of activity in the sphere of professional photography, primarily in St. Petersburg.
For posterity, however, the main legacy was his documentary campaigns that extended from the Caucasus to Central Asia to the White Sea. Between 1903 and 1916 he traveled over a dauntingly large part of the Russian Empire and took some 3,000 photographs with the process, which involved three exposures on a glass plate. 1909 was a particularly significant year for his work. In May Tsar Nicholas II invited the photographer to the imperial residence at Tsarskoe Selo to show his images of Russia through an elaborate projector. Following this presentation, Prokudin-Gorsky gained the support of the imperial court to continue his travels. The august patronage accelerated the pace of the photographer’s work, which received essential logistical support from the Ministry of Transportation.
We can assume that Prokudin-Gorsky believed in the Russian Empire as a force for enlightenment and technical progress. At the same time, he could not have been unaware of fundamental threats to the empire’s stability, including the 1905 revolution. I explore this ambivalence in the book’s concluding essay, “Over the Abyss”. After the revolutions of 1917, Prokudin-Gorsky seems to have accommodated himself to the new Soviet regime, but with the assassination of Nicholas and his family in July 1918, the photographer left Russia the following month, never to return. (Shockingly, one of his Yekaterinburg photographs includes the house in whose basement the murders occurred.) He ultimately resettled in France and regained a large part of his collection of glass negatives. Following his death in Paris in September 1944, his heirs sold the collection to the Library of Congress in 1948.
What is special and unusual about Prokudin-Gorsky’s photographic techniques?
The exposure process required an elongated, chemically treated glass plate that dropped in three steps past a lens. Different color filters were placed in front of the lens for each of the three exposures. It was something of a Rube Goldberg device, but when the three exposures were combined (through a projector or in the lab), the process produced images of remarkable quality. The lens and the process had their inherent limitations, but Prokudin-Gorsky’s mastery transcended them.
Why do you think Prokudin-Gorsky’s work resonates so much with Russians today?
Many reasons. Pride that yet another Russian proved such an adept inventor. Then there is the fascination with the sheer unexpected beauty of the images. Most importantly, perhaps, his work allows them to reconnect on so many levels with their heritage, and especially with a vision of that heritage before the cataclysms of the 1917 revolutions, a massively destructive civil war and the upheavals that followed in Soviet history during the 20th century. The photographs allow them to reconnect with a profoundly important part of their identity. There is a great thirst among many Russians of whatever generation to regain a sense of cultural and historical connectedness. When the Prokudin-Gorsky collection was made available online by the Library of Congress, a floodgate of emotion and interest was opened. These pre-revolutionary images suggest something indelibly Russian that has persisted notwithstanding the cataclysms of the 20th century. To be sure, this reconnection is not a simple matter I discuss some of the ambiguities in the introductory essay, and I return to them in the conclusion.
What inspired you to juxtapose your own photographs with Prokudin-Gorsky’s?
Actually, the project was an unexpected gift, a commission from the Library of Congress in 1985. Before then I had only a vague impression of his work; but after the appearance in October 1984 of my first book, Gold in Azure: One Thousand Years of Russian Architecture, word got around Washington that I had traveled widely in Russia and knew something about photography. One thing led to another, and in the summer of 1985 I was invited by the Library of Congress to curate the first exhibit devoted to Prokudin-Gorsky’s work. That exhibit opened at the Library in 1986, and subsequently traveled to museums around the country. From the first moments of work with his collection, I was astounded by the discovery that I had covered much of the same territory, including the fabled Central Asian cities of Samarkand and Bukhara. My mantra became, “I too have seen this.”
What challenges did you encounter while photographing these Russian landmarks?
A thorough answer to this question would require a separate book. There have been so many improbable journeys during the half-century range of my work in the former Soviet Union and in Russia specifically—for example, my trip to Uzbekistan as a graduate student in May 1972. This greatest possible treasure was part of a final trip arranged at the end of the academic year by the Foreign Section of Leningrad State University. The itinerary, unimaginable today, included the astounding monuments of Islamic architecture in Uzbekistan, the three Caucasus republics, and the Ukrainian port of Odessa. I was the only American who joined the small group. Most of my compatriots were energetically completing archival research, microfilming, and additional scholarly duties. I, however, was giddy at the prospect of going to Central Asia. To this day I do not understand how anyone with an ounce of curiosity about the planet could not have gone.
For all the rigors of traveling on our risible budget, the trip proved from a photographic point of view to be one of the most rewarding in my life. Imagine my astonishment in the summer of 1985 when I opened the Prokudin-Gorsky albums of contact prints at the Library of Congress and saw his photographs of Samarkand and Bukhara taken some six decades before my own. I witnessed those architectural monuments in much the same state as he did at the beginning of the 20th century. With the appearance of Journeys, those 1972 photographs of Samarkand and Bukhara—a very different culture from the one I usually study—will finally reach the public.
Another challenging area in my photographic work was the Russian North, historically defined as the area around the White Sea, Here again, my documentary campaigns overlapped with the journeys of Prokudin-Gorsky almost a century earlier, including his final Russian journey in 1916 (the subject of Chapter Eight). Especially rich in wooden architecture, the North could be a difficult environment for photographic work, not only because of the distances over poor roads, but also due to the climate variations. The summer in that Arctic region has its own lyrical beauty (together with swarms of blood-thirsty mosquitoes), yet the extremes of winter yielded some of the most distinctive photographs. Days of trudging with cameras through snow in intense cold were followed with evenings near the crackling heat of wood-burning brick stoves. And there were a few convivial toasts.
At the same time, during the late 1990s, I embarked on what in was in geographical terms by far the largest expansion of my regional field work. The vehicle for this expansion, which would ultimately take me through the Urals and Siberia to Russia’s Far Eastern port of Vladivostok, was an Internet project titled “Meeting of Frontiers,” initiated by James Billington, the librarian of Congress, with the support of the US Congress and major libraries of the Russian Federation. The project’s basic premise consisted of many parallels between the transcontinental destinies of the United States and Russia: the Russians move east, the Americans move west; they come into contact (occasionally violent and exploitative) with aboriginal peoples; they build railroads; and they create narratives—with substantial elements of myth—about their respective Pacific destinies.
In 1998, Billington asked me as a photographer and a specialist in Russian architecture to create a photographic component that would illustrate and illuminate this epic movement as reflected in the architecture of settlements along the way east. My relations with the library had always been productive and included my work in 1985–86 as guest curator for the first traveling exhibit of the photographs of Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky. I was, therefore, convinced of the program’s potential and its impact on my field work.
Between 1999 and 2002, I made five trips over territory that extended from the European approaches to the Ural Mountains to Vladivostok, at the southeastern tip of Russia. Each trip brought extraordinary gains in my knowledge of Russia, and each made exhaustive demands on my endurance. I should add that during my travels in Siberia, as in the Russian North, I was often met with a degree of generous hospitality that threatened to overwhelm my work. Not coincidentally, “Meeting of Frontiers” allowed me to expand my earlier Prokudin-Gorsky work at the Library by visiting the areas that he photographed in the Urals and Western Siberia.
Do you have a favorite photograph by Prokudin-Gorsky?
It is difficult to choose one, because they are so varied and so rich. Favorite in what sense? In what category? I specialize in Russia’s architectural heritage, which is so vividly presented in his work. Yet the photograph that haunts my memory is the one with children sitting on a levee in Belozersk. They are squinting in the late afternoon sun. Behind them is the dome of the Church of St. Paraskeva, ruined during the Soviet period (as my corresponding photograph shows), His photograph was taken in 1909, and I could not help but wonder what happened to those children in the following decades, decades that brought such unending trials to Russia.