The New Time Travel

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The most surprising and stirring recent high-tech step into lost time is the trip across pre-Revolutionary Russia made possible by a computer’s transformation of a collection of photographs made there around 1910, turning them from prehistoric-color curiosities into stunningly crisp and detailed portrayals of all aspects of Russian life almost a century ago in a palette as full and lifelike as any digital photograph taken today. A brassbuttoned, green-belted canal manager born in the 1820s oversees his ferry dock; three young peasant girls in multicolored homespun offer berries to visitors outside their log house; the stout emir of Bukhara sits for the camera in his richest royal blue; a merchant in a wooden stall in Samarkand displays ceiling-high stacks of multicolored silks, woolens, and cotton fabrics—all in the brilliant hues of real life.

That the pictures were taken in color at all is itself a technological miracle. That they have been recovered by the latest techniques and made so accurate they look brand-new is another. They were shot by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, an artist and trained chemist born in 1863 who persuaded Czar Nicholas II to set him up with a private railroad car to travel across Russia, making a photographic survey of the land, its peoples, and its landmarks. He crisscrossed the country between 1909 and 1912 and again in 1915. His goal was to produce a visual record of the greatness of the empire, to be used to educate schoolchildren.

He had devised and patented his own method for making color photographs. He would take three identical photos in rapid succession on the three square thirds of a glass slide about three inches wide and nine inches long. He’d expose the first square through a red filter, the second through a green filter, and the third through a blue one. He’d then develop the film in a darkroom in his railroad car and from the resulting negatives create positive glass slides, which he would project together through red, green, and blue filters to yield a single projected image in full color, albeit usually with blurred edges and other registration problems.

Little did he know that he was catching an ancient world on the eve of its dissolution, a kaleidoscope of cultures across thousands of miles about to be forced into a single Soviet mold. He captured medieval churches and monasteries, locomotives, nomads, dam builders, cities and towns—more than 2,000 images in all. In 1918 he fled the Russian Revolution with 22 crates full of his slides and settled in Paris, where he lived until he died in 1944, at the age of 81, a month after the city’s liberation from the Nazis.

The Library of Congress bought 1,903 of the pictures in 1948 and tried without much success to restore some of their faded colors in the 1980s. In the 1990s a member of the library’s technical staff, Lynn Brooks, pushed for a new attempt to reveal the pictures’ original qualities using computer techniques, and the library hired a commercial photographer named Walter Frankhauser to do the work. He employed what he calls “digichromatography” to get it done.

First he scanned the three negative images for each picture with a digital camera, recording a million pixels per square inch. A push of a computer key turned the resulting negatives into positives, and he then magnified the images on the computer screen and studied them for imperfections and deterioration that could be repaired with imagehandling software. Next came the hardest part: aligning the three images that combined to make each color photograph. Prokudin-Gorskii had had to work fast, especially when he was photographing people, resetting his glass plate and changing filters to get the three exposures for each shot, and the camera was likely to jostle, making the images not align properly. To superimpose them precisely, Frankhauser used software that was unimaginable a couple of decades ago and is utterly commonplace today: Photoshop. He often worked on a picture for days to get it right. Once the alignment was perfect, he pressed a few computer keys and turned the three blackand-white positives into the red, green, and blue they represented. Finally, seeing the picture in full color, he did a last retouching to repair any further imperfections he now detected.

The results surprised everyone involved. As Verna Curtis, the library’s curator of photography, put it, “The computer allowed us to do something that ProkudinGorskii never could have imagined he could do but wanted to do. It’s a complete world out there, a world that we usually think of in black and white.” And you can step into that world yourself, at www.loc.gov/exhibits/empire . Thus do high technology and its relentless pace of change send us hurtling ever onward—into the past.