Journeys through the Russian Empire

The Photographic Legacy of Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky

Journeys through the Russian Empire

Book Pages: 512 Illustrations: 409 illustrations, incl. 398 in color Published: May 2020

Art and Visual Culture > Architecture, Photography, European Studies > Eastern Europe and Russia

At the turn of the twentieth century, the photographer Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky undertook a quest to document an empire that was undergoing rapid change due to industrialization and the building of railroads. Between 1903 and 1916 Prokudin-Gorsky, who developed a pioneering method of capturing color images on glass plates, scoured the Russian Empire with the patronage of Nicholas II. Intrepidly carrying his cumbersome and awkward camera from the western borderlands over the Volga River to Siberia and central Asia, he created a singular record of Imperial Russia.
In 1918 Prokudin-Gorsky escaped an increasingly chaotic, violent Russia and regained nearly 2,000 of his bulky glass negatives. His subsequent peripatetic existence before settling in Paris makes his collection's survival all the more miraculous. The U.S. Library of Congress acquired Prokudin-Gorsky's collection in 1948, and since then it has become a touchstone for understanding pre-revolutionary Russia. Now digitized and publicly available, his images are a sensation in Russia, where people visit websites dedicated to them.
William Craft Brumfield—photographer, scholar, and the leading authority on Russian architecture in the West—began working with Prokudin-Gorsky's photographs in 1985. He curated the first public exhibition of them in the United States and has annotated the entire collection. In Journeys through the Russian Empire, Brumfield—who has spent decades traversing Russia and photographing buildings and landscapes in their various stages of disintegration or restoration—juxtaposes Prokudin-Gorsky's images against those he took of the same buildings and areas. In examining the intersections between his own photography and that of Prokudin-Gorsky, Brumfield assesses the state of preservation of Russia's architectural heritage and calls into question the nostalgic assumptions of those who see Prokudin-Gorsky's images as the recovery of the lost past of an idyllic, pre-Soviet Russia.
This lavishly illustrated volume—which features some 400 stunning full-color images of ancient churches and mosques, railways and monasteries, towns and remote natural landscapes—is a testament to two brilliant photographers whose work prompts and illuminates, monument by monument, questions of conservation, restoration, and cultural identity and memory.


“In the current climate in the West, with the return to an awareness of Russia being coupled with a renewed sense of threat, William Craft Brumfield's work is a major catalyst for making people aware of the richness of Russian culture. Journeys through the Russian Empire is an innovative book and an invaluable resource for coming generations of cultural historians. Allowing an opportunity to consider loss over time and to think in terms of common human values, it is indispensable to both Russophiles and all those interested in wider issues of restoration, plans for public space, the impact of industrialization and modernization, and the consequences of large-scale population migration.” — Ann Kleimola, coeditor of Culture and Identity in Muscovy: 1359–1584

“As miraculous and prodigious as Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky's photographic efforts were, William Craft Brumfield’s heroically resolute labors to record the Russian built environment of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries is remarkable in its own way. For the past four decades, Brumfield has pursued buildings, cityscapes, and landscapes across the length of Russia, producing what has become the single most important record of the Russian built environment of our era. This period's political tumult makes his work evermore significant. Journeys through the Russian Empire is an important record of how Russia changed over a troubled century, and will help readers appreciate what will come to be seen as lost worlds.” — Blair A. Ruble, coeditor of Rebounding Identities: The Politics of Identity in Russia and Ukraine

“Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky's eerie color photographs of the Tsarist empire, made in its waning years before war and revolution, record the serene glories of Russian architecture typically set in a softly glowing pre-industrial landscape. Beginning in the last decades of the Soviet Union, William Craft Brumfield has photographed these same widely dispersed monuments. The resulting juxtaposition of images, taken as much as a century apart, reminds the reader that buildings, like empires, have lives in time.” — John Beldon Scott, author of Architecture for the Shroud: Relic and Ritual in Turin


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William Craft Brumfield is Professor of Slavic Studies at Tulane University. Brumfield, who began photographing Russia in 1970, is the foremost authority in the West on Russian architecture. He is the author, editor, and photographer of numerous books, including Architecture at the End of the Earth: Photographing the Russian North and Lost Russia: Photographing the Ruins of Russian Architecture, both also published by Duke University Press. Brumfield is the recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship and was a Fellow at the National Humanities Center. In 2002 he was elected to the State Russian Academy of Architecture and Construction Sciences, and in 2006 he was elected to the Russian Academy of Fine Arts. He is also the 2014 recipient of the D. S. Likhachev Prize for Outstanding Contributions to the Preservation of the Cultural Heritage of Russia. Brumfield's photographs of Russian architecture have been exhibited at numerous galleries and museums and are part of the Image Collections at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

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Paper ISBN: 978-1-4780-0695-4 / Cloth ISBN: 978-1-4780-0602-2