Sergey Prokudin-Gorskii was an early pioneer of color photography who produced a vast body of work at the turn of the 20th century. A chemist, an engineer, and a devoted photographer, Prokudin-Gorskii traveled all across the Russian Empire — sometimes by train, sometimes by steamboat — to document its life. His work includes a few hundreds of color photographs, each a unique document of its time.
Prokudin-Gorskii’s technical process was ahead of its time: he was producing color photographs long before color film was invented. As one of the earliest precursors of modern-day RGB color processing, Prokudin-Gorskii would take three separate black and white photos of the same scene using a separate color filter — red, green and blue — for each. When projected through their respective filters in the darkroom, these negatives together produced a color image.
I have been inspired by Prokudin-Gorskii’s process for some time, and when Ilya Varegin approached me to shoot his upcoming collection, the technique seemed like a perfect fit. A prominent Russian costume designer and the founder of the brand “Infundibulum,” Ilya creates art that pays homage to historical heritage while maintaining contemporary relevance.
This is a rare combination, and I was happy to accept the challenge of recreating Prokudin-Gorsii’s color process. Our objective was to create a pronounced classical look with the modern subject, while at the same time not pretending to be historical. This latter point was very important to us: while we wanted the image to appear anachronistic, we were also determined to leave signs of contemporary life within the frame.
Ilya created five characters––five wandering traders––each of whom wears specific costumes and props. A pair of the cheapest rubber shoes, for example. The character who works with oil carries a pair of plastic jerrycans, but using a 19th-century yoke.
We chose the Russian town of Rostov Veliky (founded in 862 AD!) as the main location for the shoot. Packed with 16th-century churches and wooden houses, Rostov Veliky is also generously flavoured with Soviet architecture and all the signs of modern times.
Ilya and his wife Sveta organized what is perhaps best described as a Prokudin-Gorskii inspired semi-anthropological photographic field trip. Our team of twelve people descended onto Rostov Veliky for four days, where we stayed in a functioning monastery. Using a Sinar 4x5 large format camera and a Broncolor mobile strobe (all thanks to the generous support provided by SBF Moscow), we produced a total of 18 negatives.
Back in Moscow, these negatives were developed and wet-scanned by the wizards at DPArtphoto Lab. The scans were then reversed and the positive images adjusted precisely in order to mix the RGB color channels in Photoshop.
This process was considerably more labor-intensive than standard large format color photography, but the results have been fantastically rewarding. Despite the fact that we shot on black-and-white film, the color is now there and remarkably close to real life. But it’s important to remember that the project was fundamentally about costumes, and it was necessary to be very precise with the color of the fabrics. In the end, our process was not unlike that used by the US Library of Congress to recover and digitize Prokudin-Gorskii’s original negatives.
Infundibulum, Mart, SS19 capsule collection
Photographer: Andrew Kovalev (ckovalev.com)
Art supervisor: Tatiana Almond
Chief assistant: Timur Ivanov
BTS-videographer: Nikita Goryachkin
Models: Gleb Gavrish, Evgeni Zamyatin, Johann Nikadimus, Ilia Kuznetsov and The Basket Head
With help and support of Svetlana Pavlova, Elizaveta Sokolova and Elen Panteleeva
Special thanks to SBF Moscow/Broncolor Russia/Sinar Swiss for technical support
A truly magical film development and scanning services by DPArtphoto lab (Moscow)