Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky (1863-1944): interesting name, interesting man. A Russian aristocrat whose chemistry studies enabled him to finesse an early twentieth-century method of colour photography, he was also an astute self-publicist who finagled a commission from Tsar Nicholas II to travel the Russian Empire (by private rail car), photographing his far-flung subjects in their bucolic idylls. He did a suspiciously good job – if sowing fields were this much fun, surely there would have been no revolution. In between, he captured portraits, most famously of Tolstoy in 1908, landscapes and, since the minister who organised his rail car wanted proof that his distant employees were actually doing their job, acres of train track.
These tiny luminous colour prints aren’t great art but their historical fascination more than compensates. But the curator’s decision to juxtapose these early portrayals of emirs and peasant girls, mine managers and Jewish schoolchildren with grimly prosaic images, still and moving, from Russia in the early twenty-first century is unwise. Taus Makhacheva’s posing figure, lone amid the masonry of a spectacular ruined village in Dagestan, could be poignant – but not when we’ve just watched the inadvertent agents of Tsarist propaganda smiling sturdily into a fearsome future. And Alexander Gronsky’s ironic historical reconstructions, where Stalingrad warriors check their mobile phones between gunshots, might have more force away from the real history in Prokudin-Gorsky’s photographs – tenderly coloured, inexpressibly dark.