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The First Color Photographs and the Two Old Lady Theory of History

By Alexander Joenks | Pajiba Storytellers | February 6, 2014 |

By Alexander Joenks | Pajiba Storytellers | February 6, 2014 |

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a wonderful description for understanding how history is much closer than we think it is, that the distance of decades and centuries is an optical illusion. He notes that we see on paper that the Civil War was 150 years ago, and our mind boggles at that span of time. The world has moved on, and that time’s connection to us is just a ghost of memory attached to familiar names on maps.

But find yourself the right great-grandmother, the sort who likes to tell stories of the alien worlds of a long time ago to the patient kids who prefer to hear strong-voiced tales to running amuck in the yard. Find the right one, and she might just tell you about a time when she was a little girl listening to tales at the feet of her great-grandmother, pass on to you the firsthand words of someone who saw slaves and masters with her own two eyes. Slavery was an eternity ago when you think of 150 years, but it was the day before yesterday if you remember that it was just two old ladies ago.

This is a story about that.

In 1947, the American Council of Learned Societies was trying to translate a bunch of Russian works that had never been translated from the original Russian. Problematically, one of the books had a lot of photographs that simply couldn’t be reproduced without negatives.

One of the translators on the project was Maria Poutiatine, a Russian princess living in Paris, who had been born in Russia, but managed to escape to the west ahead of the advancing Red Army during the Revolution. She was one of the closer relatives of the massacred royal family. But the princess trade didn’t pay the bills in these latter days, and so she worked as a Russian translator in France. She remembered that before the fall of the Russian Empire, her father-in-law had once helped with a photographer’s slide show, put dva and dva together, and then recalled rumors that said photographer’s family had also made it to France after the Revolution.

And so one boss contacted another boss, until someone assigned Donald Lowrie, a YMCA staff member, to try to track down this old photographer’s family. “YMCA staff member” is probably the most undercutting way to describe a guy who had been part of the American invasion of Russia (you knew we did that, right?), translated several books, and helped many French Jews escape the Holocaust during World War II by getting them false passports. YMCA staff members: hold the teenagers teaching your five year old how to do summersaults to the higher standard of their forebears.

So after a lot of poking around in postwar Paris, this rumored photographer’s family was found. And they had a box of around 1900 negatives, stashed away in the basement. The photographer himself, Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, had died a few years previously, but as they were struggling financially, the family was willing to sell the negatives to the Library of Congress for a tidy sum of $3500.

The negatives weren’t useful for the translation project in question, but their importance was unbelievable. See, these weren’t just any photo negatives. Gorsky was one of the pioneers of early color photography, one of those alchemical madmen who saw the world in reds, blues, and greens. He had devised a system in which three black and white cameras assembled in an elaborate apparatus of light-splitting lenses, and red, blue, and green filters, could take some of the first color photographs in history. Now, they couldn’t be developed in the modern sense. At the time, he could only show the pictures through an equally elaborate slide show contraption that would shine the right colored light through each of the negatives, and focus the overlapping images onto a screen.

The tsar was impressed enough that Gorsky got royal support to tour the vast Russian countryside, his special cameras dedicated to documenting the uniqueness of the Russian people and lands. In 1909, he set out on a six year project, taking full-color high resolution photographs of peoples murdered over the next twenty years, ways of life that disappeared with the coming industrialization and forced collectivization, and ancient churches leveled with explosives within a decade. The earliest color photographs in the world are not of princes and palaces, but of some of the poorest people in the world, snapshots of times and places fed into totalitarian fires within a generation.

There’s a tendency for us to not think of the world before photography as exactly real. We are a visual species, a point hammered home by all of our cliches that run along the lines of believing what we see. It’s a blind spot reinforced by the simple fact that we do have a photographic record after a certain point, and so it’s harder to see the world of 1850 as being quite as real as the world of 1950. These photos of the mute dead, captured in their perfectly normal lives, push back that time, make it a little more real to us.

When the revolution came, Gorsky escaped the country, making his way to France and taking all the negatives he could with him. Authorities confiscated half of them, insisting that this one or that one was a security danger, but in the end, 1902 negatives reached Paris with Gorsky. These are old glass plate negatives, not film, each one a fragile sheet of thin glass, making them even more vulnerable. Not a single one of the negatives left behind were ever seen again, presumably tossed into fire or trash heaps before Gorsky even reached the border. That there is a story in itself, the story of meaningless destruction, of small men with smaller minds wrecking what little records we have of the past.

The negatives sat in a box for thirty years, before those curiosity seekers from the Library of Congress stumbled upon them. They sat in another box then, for another thirty years, buried in another basement on the other side of the world, before they were rediscovered. A hundred of the pictures were printed off for a coffee table book sold by the Library of Congress. And then another twenty years passed, until they were rediscovered again and what once took elaborate projection machinery or photography experts now only took seconds in Photoshop to recombine into full color photographs.

And they’re gorgeous. High resolution and crisp like fine digital pictures, and now the Library of Congress offers the entire collection for free over the web, all 1902 of them. It’s a vindication of this technology you’re reading this on, of the fact that it’s worth more than celebrity bitching and funny photos of cats. Those early pictures are gone, but the ones that lasted will live forever, stored on a thousand servers, downloaded by a million people. These electrons and scattered magnetic bits are our eternal tool against those that burn.

But one more story of this old box of photographs that drag the past right back in front of our eyes. One of the more famous photos of the collection is of the man in the header. That’s the last Emir of Bukhara, one of the last of the warlords that ruled Central Asia for thousands of years. Blood of those riders of terror that were the scourge of every civilized land since time immemorial. Gorsky took his picture, in full proud regalia, in 1911.

The Emir, gained some measure of independence during the Russian revolution when all those Russians returned to Russia to fight each other. He was driven out again by the returning Red Army in 1920, and he lived out his final years in Afghanistan, dying just a month before Gorsky died in exile thousands of miles away in Paris.

His son denounced him, moved to the Soviet Union and joined the very Red Army that had deposed his father. His daughter became a journalist, and in 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded that country, she was able to escape to America ahead of that very same army.

Shukria Raad Alimi is still a journalist, working as recently as 2002 for Voice of America and public broadcasting, a century removed from that simple photograph of her father. This is her Facebook page.

Sometimes history isn’t even two old ladies away.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at You can email him here and order his novel here.