Before the dust had settled on the first successful photographic prints in 1839, the race to produce an image in colour swept tinkerers and hobbyists into feverish competition. First an astronomer in Slough then a Baptist minister in New York reported making colour prints, but neither were able to fix their fast-fading images. That feat came later in 1861, but it wasn’t until the 1890s that colour photography really got into its stride.
Across the Baltic, things took a little longer. Despite the reach of the Russian empire, in the waning years of the nineteenth century Russia lagged behind the technological developments gaining traction in West, and cameras were slow to catch on.
With this in mind, it’s extraordinary to learn that what the Russians lacked in industry they made up for in artisanal skill. For one, as a forthcoming exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery in London reveals, their hand colouring techniques were in some cases superior to their Western counterparts.
Primrose (the title of the exhibition is taken from the Russian word for ‘first colour’) also explores the Isochromatic printing method invented by Sergei Produkin-Gorsky, whereby black and white plates were exposed three times in quick succession through blue, red and green filters. So keen was the Tsar on this Russian-grown technique that he commissioned an empire-wide survey of life from Produkin-Gorsky, which produced some of the most glorious photographs of Russia in existence.
In the Fifties, Russia began producing her own colour film, but colour photography remained strictly the preserve of the state; the film was only supplied to state-approved photographers working for state-approved magazines, staging the events they were supposedly photographing as ‘reportage.’
In the late Sixties colour film began appearing on the mass market, but rather than negative film, it was transparency or slide film, which was much less costly to develop. The work produced in this era is represented in the show by one of the most infamous and daring photographers to emerge from Russia. Boris Mikhailov’s later work exposed the harsh realities of life once the Soviet Union had begun to disintegrate, but he’s represented in this exhibition by the gentler, more whimsical series Suzi et cetera which depicts daily life in his home town.
At the time he showed his images in secret slideshows, away from the prying eyes of the authorities. “These underground forums allowed artists to apply their own views of the Soviet state that they couldn’t share publically. It was the beginning of the end,” says curator Karen McQuaid. “It’s a fascinating lens through which to follow Russia’s history.”