How We Lived on It (24) – Russia in Color, a Century Ago

I wrote yesterday of being called home from Budapest, on the way to visit the shtetl in which my father was born, because of my father’s illness, from which he soon died. Two months later, in October 2005, Julia and I completed that journey to Orinin, in the historic Podolia region of Ukraine, the Jewish significance of which is detailed in One Hundred Shtetls of Ukraine. It was a profound personal journey for me that I am writing about elsewhere.

My father, like many other immigrants of his kind, spoke sparingly of his origin and experiences. He was a child in pre-World War 1, pre-revolutionary Russia, in what in every respect, but to the calendar, was still the nineteenth century. He lived through a period of pogroms in Ukraine, in addition to revolution and then civil war, in which over one hundred thousand Jews were killed. I was a child in Eisenhower’s America. I watched Captain Kangaroo and Howdy Doody, spent days at the beach, and had my photo taken with Davy Crocketts arm around my shoulder.

For my family, Orinin was a mysterious location lost remotely in space, buried deeply in time – a village my father left in 1920, and to which he never returned. It no more still existed for us than did the nineteenth century. It was only in the spring of 2005 that I learned through research that the town does still exist.

Our imaginings of the remote past – even not so remote, when we are young – are shaped by technology, especially in the twentieth century by technology that attempted to record reality. Tinny, scratchy-sounding recordings, slow-moving and flickering silent film, black and white photography all helped represent for people of a certain historical period the sense that the past was somehow less vivid than the present: less clear, quick, and sharp in its actuality. It came to seem that technology itself was the creator of this more vivid reality, so that a world in which there were no automobiles, radio, television, movies, or telephone, never mind the still later digitalized world, could not possibly have felt and appeared as real to those who lived in it as ours does to us. Of course the Second World War and the Holocaust occurred in grainy black and white. Who else but those who lived through them could imagine them in contrastingly surreal sun and color?

It fit perfectly, then, that on my journey into personal and cultural history I was accompanied by a photographer, Julia, whose métier is black and white photography. What I was attempting to conjure, draw from the fabric of the space around me into my concentrated imaginings – the past in which my father lived – she was able to capture, as so many of us conceive it, in her images.

In startling contrast,’s “The Big Picture” presented a couple of weeks ago a selection of the images of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, commissioned by Tsar Nicholas II to do “a photographic survey of the Russian Empire.” The photos, from 1909-1912, cover precisely the years of my father’s infancy. Though none of the photos is of Ukraine itself, this is the world, occasionally the Jewish world, into which my father was born.

[Prokudin-Gorskii] used a specialized camera to capture three black and white images in fairly quick succession, using red, green and blue filters, allowing them to later be recombined and projected with filtered lanterns to show near true color images. The high quality of the images, combined with the bright colors, make it difficult for viewers to believe that they are looking 100 years back in time – when these photographs were taken, neither the Russian Revolution nor World War I had yet begun.

Below are a few representative images. You must really go to the site to take in the full scope and almost literally have your breath taken away. Here is the past appearing as vividly, colorfully real as the world we live in. It is like peering, not back, but through a window in time. One feels as if one could walk directly into the scene.

The last two photos here are standouts for me for purely personal reasons. In the next to last, of course, it is easy for me to imagine the boy as my father.

In the very last, the countryside, while not Ukraine, is very reminiscent of the rural Ukraine, even today, that I drove through as I traveled into imagined memory to a kind of home. Beyond that, in the photograph, there is for me what Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida termed a punctum. Rather than the more general cultural, historical or aesthetic consideration of the photo, which Barthes called the studium, the punctum is the detail in a photo, if it is there, that personally wounds. (You may need to click on the photo to enlarge it and see.)

A photograph’s punctum is that accident [of photographic detail] which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).

He says, too

I now know that there exists another punctum (another ‘stigmatum’) than the ‘detail.’ This new punctum, which is no longer of form but of intensity, is Time.


But more insidious, more penetrating than likeness: the Photograph sometimes makes appear what we never see in a real face (or in a face reflected in a mirror): a genetic feature, the fragment of oneself or of a relative which comes from some ancestor.

In the last photo here, more than the terrain that recalls the world to which I returned, you can see two figures nearing the bend in the road, around which soon they would disappear behind the trees, not to be seen again. They are like a painter’s brush strokes to simulate the appearance of people in the distance. And again I think how one could almost have been my father, present there in his childhood in a way more real that I could ever have hoped – I could almost leap on to the road and run after him – but walking off, instead, into the distance, of space and unrecoverable time, as do all of us.

(h/t Normblog)



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3 thoughts on “How We Lived on It (24) – Russia in Color, a Century Ago

  1. How moving your trip must have been.

    My past is somewhere in Greece on my father’s side. Apart from locating his birth certificate (he was a first generation American), I’ve run into a wall and found nothing more. So much passed with him when he died in 1990.

    The photos are indeed extraordinary.

  2. Holy Shit! that color is amazing!….a pogrom in “living color.” who wooda thunk it…im goin to that site right now…i wonder if its possible.must be, to create that process today..o Julia…i hear an alternative foto project callin…

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