Before becoming famous for photographing tsarist Russia, Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky captured stunning photos of life in Central Asia more than a century ago.
Several years before he was famously commissioned by the tsar to photograph the Russian Empire in color, chemist Prokudin-Gorsky set off on an expedition to what is now Uzbekistan to observe a solar eclipse.
The weeks-long trip failed in its main goal after cloud cover blocked any glimpse of the eclipse, but the journey was not a lost cause. With his German-made camera that enabled vivid color images to be produced, Prokudin-Gorsky explored the backstreets and ancient centers of Samarkand and Bukhara, capturing photographs unlike any that had been taken before.
Gorsky perfected an early method of color photography that required three separate images of each scene to be shot with color filters. When the three images were sandwiched together and had red, green, and blue light shone through them, a color image could be projected.
Prokudin-Gorsky made three trips to what is now Uzbekistan but was then part of the Russian Empire.
Prokudin-Gorsky’s first trip to Central Asia was for the abortive 1907 attempt to record the solar eclipse, the second and third were in 1911 after he received backing from the tsar to photograph the Russian Empire.
It’s unclear when the more than 200 photos Prokudin-Gorsky shot in Central Asia were taken, but photos like this — of Bukhara’s interior minister with a ceremonial sword, which required access to government buildings — were probably made during the 1911 expeditions, when the photographer had a letter of recommendation from the tsar.
The photo was taken just a few meters from the “bug pit” where two British officers were tortured before eventually being beheaded in 1842 by the emir of Bukhara.
Bukharans who owed either taxes to the government or money to other people were held in the prison but allowed out to work until they had repaid their debts.
A local historian told RFE/RL that the building was destroyed during the 1920 Soviet invasion of the ancient city.
After the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Prokudin-Gorsky fled Russia and eventually settled in Paris. Soon after his death in 1944, the U.S. Library Of Congress purchased 1,902 images — including more than 200 shot in Central Asia — from the great photographer’s relatives.