'Things of interest and significance'; Photographs for the Tsar: The pioneering Color Photography of Sergei Mikhailovich Prodkudin-Gorskii, Commissioned by Tsar Nicholas II, edited, with an introduction by Robert H. Allshouse. New York: The Dial Press. $35.

The remarkable work of a previously little-known pioneer in early 20 th-century color photography, Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, has been collected for the first time by Robert H. Allshouse in the lavishly illustrated "Photographs for the Tsar." Born in St. Petersburg in 1863, Prokudin-Gorskii was a Russian chemist, artist, and photographer, commissioned from 1909 to 1915 by Tsar Nichols II to travel throughout the Russian Empire photographing "things of interest and significance." Prokudin-Gorskii believed in the educative function of photography, and hoped that his glass plates of Russia's people, natural beauties, monuments, and historical places would one day be projected on screens in schoolrooms for the instruction of Russian youth.

When forced by the events of the revolution to leave his homeland in 1918, Prokudin-Gorskii took with him his photograph albums and a collection of almost 2,000 glass-plate negatives. He died in Paris in 1943; in 1948 the American Council of Learned Societies located approximately 1,600 of the plates and brought them to the attention of the Library of Congress, where they now reside.

TWo hundred and forty of these photographs have been reproduced in "Photographs for the Tsar," half in color, half in sepia. While it is Prokudin-Gorskii's early efforts in color photography that bring him his renown, the sepia reproductions in this collection are equally impressive. Allshouse has grouped the photographs into seven sections, each devoted to a particular theme or locale.

The poverty-stricken village as a permanent fixture of the Russia countryside is evident throughout "Village Life." a photograph of peasants making hay bears an uncanny resemblance to studies of haystacks by the French painter Monet. Reproduced in sepia, an eerie photograph of a frozen haystack contrasts with the peasants' portraits that comprise much of this section.

The only existing color portrait of Russian writer Leo Tolstoy appears in "Tolstoy and Yasnaya Polyana," taken by Produkin-Gorskii at the novelist's estate in 1908.

A striking black-and-white photograph of fishermen's nets drying on Lake Seliger is particularly noteworthy in "Rivers and Waterways." Set against a dark background of desolate lake and land, a wooden post hangs over the abandoned nets; because of the angle at which the photograph was taken, at first glance the post appears to be a white cross.

Prokudin-Gorskii's color work highlights the splendid churches in "Churches and Ikons." OF special interest are the ornate interior of the Church of the Virgin in Smolensk, and the brilliant red, white, and gold exterior of the Cathedral of St. Nicholas in Mozhaisk.

Photographs of local workers, settlers, and inhabitants predominate the three regional sections that conclude the book. A color portrait of a settler and his family in "The Urals," a black-and-white photograph of a mullah with his pupils in "The Caucasus," and a black-and-white study of the burial mounds at the Sart cemetery near Sur-Darga in Turkestan and Samarkand" are particularly captivating.

Allshouse has done a commendable job of selecting the photographs for inclusion in this volume; both the color and sepia rreproductions reveal the photographer's quest for pictures that edify.Prokudin-Gorskii's efforts to capture "things of interest and significance" in Russia on film, and his hopes that the results would enlighten future audiences have been realized -- we need only turn the pages of this very remarkable book.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.