Earliest colour photo of an astronomical expedition

This remarkable picture appears to be the first colour photograph of an astronomical expedition, perhaps even of any scientific event. Taken by a pioneering Russian photographer in January 1907, it shows a party of astronomers set up in the mountains of central Asia to observe a total eclipse of the Sun.

colour eclipse photo
Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky’s eclipse party

Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky does not appear to have recorded the eclipse itself. But his image offers a fascinating glimpse of how scientists headed into the snowy peaks in the depths of winter to observe totality.

Two refracting telescopes on equatorial mounts stand proudly outside the team’s yurt – a traditional tent-like but wooden structure that nomads typically used in this part of the world. The photographer himself stands, second from the left, in a fur hat.

Prokudin-Gorsky’s notes tell us they were at Cherniaevo Station in the Tian-Shan mountains above the Saliuktin mines on Golodnaia Steppe. That is in the east of what is today Uzbekistan, near its eastern border with Tajikistan.

The eclipse is dated January 1 whereas a spot of research shows that it actually happened on January 14. The difference is due to the fact that Russia did not switch to the Gregorian Calendar until later in the last century.

Prokudin-Gorsky, who was a chemist, did not have the benefit of colour film in the early 20th century. What is so interesting about his method is that it used essentially the same technique as is still often used by astrophotographers today to photograph such targets as nebulae and galaxies.

He took three separate photos of his subjects using monochrome glass plates through red, green and blue coloured filters. Those three black and white images can today be combined to produce startlingly vibrant colour pictures of the past. (NB. I applied automatic colour correction in Photoshop Elements and cropped the photo before saving as a fresh jpeg file. The original can be seen here.)

I found this picture among a catalogue of more than 4,000 prints and negatives taken by Prokudin-Gorsky and now in the US Library of Congress that uniquely capture life in early 20th century Russia.

Born in August 1863 in Funikova Gora, Russia, he was appointed royal photographer by Tsar Nicholas II and had to flee the country in 1918 after the Russian Revolution and murder of the tsar. He died on September 27, 1944 in Paris. The pictures he left us offer hours of fascinating viewing.

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©PAUL SUTHERLAND, Skymania.com

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By Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland has been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. He writes regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy, plus he has authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

2 thoughts on “Earliest colour photo of an astronomical expedition

  • 12/29/2010 at 3:21 pm

    Prokudin-Gorsky’s work exerts perennial fascination. I wonder about the blanket on the yurt—did Prokudin-Gorsky deploy it as the equivalent of a color card?

  • 12/29/2010 at 3:51 pm

    I wondered the same thing! But it doesn’t seem to appear in his other photos.

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