The Potemkin effect: Colour photos from Russia in the black-and-white days

Old Russian colour photos - Moscow in 1931

There is a fantastic collection of old colour photos from Russia – Tsarist Russia, to be exact – taken between 1902 and 1912 on the Boston Globe site. Strictly speaking, they’re not colour photos – the photographer, Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944) – shot each image three times, using a red, green and then blue filter. He later combined them to get an approximation of reality. (For anyone who grew up in Edmonton, you’ll understand when I say this all looks a little Ukrainian Village to me.) The photos are from all over the Russian empire, which makes for an amazing variety of costumes and fashions.

The Boston Globe posted them about a year ago, and they’ve been making the rounds on Twitter and Facebook again in the last few weeks. It seems we can’t stop looking at these reminders that the world has always been in colour: Depression-era USALondon during the BlitzSoldiers awaiting D-Day in the trenches. It’s always a bit of a shock to see that entire wars and other events unfolded in full colour, complete with stereotypically bright summer skies.

Of course, we’re so used to seeing these time periods in black-and-white, that no matter how often we look, they maintain an aura of fake about them. We can’t quite believe they’re real and that’s what the world actually looked like then. Black-and-white has somehow come to stand in for a more “real” reality than colour.

Not so much for this collection of Moscow in 1931, posted on Retronaut, one of my favourite sites [Updated: The original Retronaut post I wrote about has since disappeared. Try this link instead.]. The eerie, painterly quality is because they’re actually colourized, meaning that the photos were taken in black-and-white, and then painted over.

Old colour photos from Russia - peasants harvesting in a fieldThe photos were originally posted here on the blog Poemas del rio Wang – it’s a much broader collection, with a Moscow map identifying the various locations. Many of the monuments and buildings of “old Moscow” didn’t survive much longer into the 1930s:

The Library of the University of California in 1971 received the photo legacy of photographer and travelogue lecturer Branson DeCou from his heirs. Between 1921 and 1941 DeCou traveled all over the world, and took about 8 thousand glass slides, not only on the historical monuments but also on the everyday life of the visited cities. He then regularly held presentations with projected slides in various cities of the USA. The library has recently started the digitization of the hand-colored slides.

Unlike the other colour photo sets, these ones have a strange obscuring effect. The sky is blue, people look like they’re casually strolling the streets and going about their business. Life is an endless, innocent summer. And if anything, the Five-Year Plan propaganda posters just amplifies the twisted Potemkin village effect. (Not unlike this.)

When I look at photos from WWII, the colour versions feel less real – I have to remind myself they’re not stills from a movie. With these photos, the effect is different. They still feel fake, but somehow the reality of the Soviet life in the 1930s weighs more heavily here. You know that people are about to plucked off the streets or from their homes – just as soon as the sun sets.