Empire of Images - Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii's Colour Photographs from the Russian Empire to the Emigration Community in France (ca. 1906-1948)

Henning Lautenschläger

S.M. Prokudin-Gorskij: Women's convent at Volgoverchov'e. Around 1910. Source:Library of Congress.

Deeply influenced by the revolution of 1905, which demonstrated the deep socio-economic inequalities and the instability of tsarist rule over the vast heterogeneous Russian Empire, the Russian aristocrat and photographer Sergei Michailovich Prokudin Gorskii (1863-1944) set up a plan for a photographic collection to be used for patriotic homeland studies. He was certain that presenting these photographs of important cultural, historical, industrial and natural landmarks of Russia to its population would arouse imperial patriotism in the hearts of the people. This conservative reaction to the effects of Russia's rapid modernization at the beginning of the 20th century soon attracted the attention of state authorities. However, the outbreak of World War I buried the completion of the photographic collection.

But the end of tsarism and the revolutions of 1917 did not put an end to Prokudin-Gorskii's project: The newly established Bolshevik government immediately recognized the propagandistic value of his images and presented them to sailors and soldiers for educational and entertaining purposes. Finally, following Prokudin-Gorskii's emigration in 1921, they served the creation of another image of Russia: Here, in the extensive Russian émigré community of interwar Paris, his photographs were presented in public for the last time, and again for the promotion of a specific image of Russia – the one of the lost homeland torn apart by the destructive waves of revolution.

Based on approaches and methods of new imperial history and visual history, the project aims to uncover the utilisation of Prokudin-Gorskii's photographs for legitimising different ideologies during central stages of Russian history in the 20th century. On the one hand, it investigates how several protagonists and organisations tried to use, re-write, and invent visual traditions and cultural codes of meaning for implementing effective politics of identity, nation-building, and the construction of mental maps and places of memory ("Erinnerungsorte"). On the other hand, cultural codes, social practices, and different material forms of the photographs for their part shaped how the images were perceived and thus influenced the different mental maps of Russia on their own.