Earliest colour photo of astro event

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.

Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky\'s eclipse party

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 is 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. A fine selection may be viewed here, for example.

• Discover space for yourself and do fun science with a telescope. Here is Skymania’s advice on how to choose a telescope. We also have a guide to the different types of telescope available. Check out our monthly sky guide too

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