Archiving: learn from Sergey Mikhaylovich Prokudin-Gorsky

Alim Khan, by Sergey Mikhaylovich Prokudin-GorskyAlim Khan, by Sergey Mikhaylovich Prokudin-GorskyHave a look at the photograph to the right (click to enlarge). It depicts Alim Khan, 31 years old.

I find his colorful vestment really enjoyable. Doesn't the image look like a folkloristic picture taken in a country far far away? Actually, it was. In Bukhara, Uzbekistan.

Besides its originality, the wonderful colors and the solemn atmosphere, there doesn't seem to be anything too special about this photograph.

Until you learn that Alim Khan was the Emir of Bukhara. When he became 31, the world saw the year of 1911.

This photograph is nearly 100 years old.

Actually, these three photographs are nearly 100 years old. Photographer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorsky (1863-1944) used a hand camera that produced three images within 3 seconds, filtered by red, blue and green, on a single Ilford glass plate that he had slightly processed before use. To obtain a photograph like the one shown here, you need to overlay the three pictures properly, similar to how your TV produces color images by displaying red, green and blue dots.

Prokudin-Gorsky also designed special projectors to be able to show his photographs to audiences throughout Russia. His goal was to make others familiar with all aspects of life in what was the Russian Empire and to preserve the memory for generations to come.

What we can learn from Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorsky?

There are a couple of obvious and not so obvious lessons for you here:

  • Account for a processing of your data that you don't even dream of today. Prokudin-Gorsky didn't know about computers, they were invented a generation after he took the pictures. Yet his glass plates can be scanned and processed now.
    Keep your data, especially your valuable memories, in accessible, well-documented formats to allow for easy conversion and processing. Batch-convert them every 5-10 years into the best available, open, free and lossless data format that will be available by then. Make this a habit. When you're dead and gone (sorry for mentioning this), there is nobody going to convert your bulk of data in proprietary formats you've collected over your lifetime. Even if there was, there may no longer be the software or computers to do so anymore. But your descendants may feel the same fun looking at your stills and videos as we feel today when we look at vintage pictures.
  • Avoid Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) and anything else that restricts your access to valuable data you have produced or bought. If Prokudin-Gorsky had used DRM to «protect» his images, we might not be able to enjoy them today. Maybe the data would have vanished, the technology provider either having shut down its respective services or experience itself being shut down altogether.
    This is especially true for bought content. Google cancelled paid video downloads, technically annihilating all videos bought by their customers so far (With a refund, sure. What's the price of your memories?). The BBC chose the DRM-ridden iPlayer by Microsoft as their vehicle for viewing their content via the internet (and you thought you could save historic moments forever!). Where will Flickr be, in 2107? Google? Microsoft? Apple? And all of their websites and proprietary technologies, designed to lock you in? If DRM had been imposed on recordings a hundred years ago, none of the beautiful vintage shellack recordings you can find at the Internet Audio Archive would be available to you. Legally, that is....
  • Don't think any data was too banal to be preserved. Account for a usage of your data that you don't even dream of today. This is a hard lesson. Many people tell you e.g. to delete the photographs you don't like and to just keep a few good ones.
    In the age of digital photography, this is hardly necessary and you should not do it. Why? Look at more pictures by Prokudin-Gorsky, like Production of Artistic Casting or The Bakalskii Mine. See? At the time they were taken, they just showed some hard, dirty, everyday work. By now, they tell us much more. And the banal stuff will enable uses you don't dream of today.
    Look at what Blaise Agüera y Arcas can do with a bunch of (sometimes) lousy snapshots: reconstruct a 3D view of places from Flickr photos (by the way, Blaise helped to reconstruct Prokudin-Gorsky's pictures). My prediction is that within a few years, you will use software that reconstructs 3D views of people from all the images you've got of them, allowing you to watch them age (or become younger) as you pull a slider right or left. If you delete a seemingly meaningless snapshot today, your father's 3D virtual head might miss a part of his right ear a decade later.
  • Don't use special archiving media or software. Use what you work with anyway.
    Well, Prokudin-Gorsky's glass plates were only writable once, I admit. But he used standard Ilford plates that he slightly improved for better sensitivity to red. He stored them and carried them with him for the rest of his life. He didn't have any special, proprietary, alienating backup solution.
    In contrast, how many backup «solutions» have you come across in your life? A couple of, I bet. And they're all the same:
    1. When they enter the market, the devices are insanely expensive.
    2. The media are incompatible among vendors.
    3. One year after you bought a «solution», you realize that you can't back up all of your data anymore on one backup medium. You need to waste your time on choosing, splitting and distributing your data.
    4. Acquiring sufficient amounts of media becomes more and more expensive over time.
    5. 3-5 years later, the respective backup technology is outdated and insufficient, despite all of your investments (that exceeded the price of a huge, decent hard disk by far) and the pile of media in your drawers, filled with important data you'll soon be unable to recover.
    There is only one real solution: take what you use anyway. For a while to come this means hard disks. Buy a backup hard disk that is twice as big as the one that hosts your important data. Copy your data to it, regularly and in many versions (if you absolutely need to save space, try using rsnapshot under Linux or a Windows equivalent that uses NTFS junctions - ask an IT pro to help you with this). Don't use proprietary backup software, data compression, encryption or anything else that might prevent you from accessing your data. After 3-5 years, recycle: buy a new backup hard disk that is twice as big as your current backup hard disk; dispose of the hard disk hosting your data and replace it by the old backup hard disk. When hard disk prices permit, buy a second backup disk, back up every month to it and lock it away in a bank safe, as an off-site backup.

Interesting what a 100 year old photograph can teach us, isn't? I'm looking forward to your comments, below.


I read something a while

I read something a while back about information being the most valuable asset (I believe it was in relation to Google archiving emails, search enquiries etc) because you can do so much with it. Ever since then I have always been keen to preserve and archive as much as possible, whether it be old site designs, documents or even game save files.

Same with me

Same with me.

I find that it's hardly a problem if you choose your folder structure wisely and stick with it. Never been fond of the "throw everything into one folder and search" approach.

About 20 years ago, I was still using backup systems (e.g., Travan and QIC tapes). Today, I can't restore the backups anymore - the devices can't be plugged in anymore (parallel port, anybody?), the software requires Windows 95 (or older...), I forgot several of the passwords (ouch), several media are just unreadable. Had I simply bought a seemingly "expensive" harddisk, I would have saved money (!) time and regrets.

Funny that you mention game save files - still have some Myst, Time Lapse, Rivven etc. files - buried on a Travan tape. I had named them very carefully according to the game levels reached, but my backup thinking obviously wasn't as developed... :-|

100 years old! Wow. That

100 years old! Wow. That really is unbelievable!

If I hadn't red this article and the explanation on it came to be, I would have never considered it to be possible.

When I read it was a 100 yrs

When I read it was a 100 yrs old, I was like, WOW! How can this be , you couldn't such pictures even years after the date and that too with the latest tech the world had then.I'll show this over to my friends.Thanks for posting.

Post-WWII slides of Japan

What can be done with hundreds of post-war photos taken in occupied Japan after WW II? My father-in-law took so many that we haven't even had the nerve to look at them yet, but I imagine that someone somewhere might want them for historical interest. Any suggestions?

Post-WWI slides of Japan

Hi Ann,

I'm not an expert here, but maybe you can find one at a University?

E.g., the Ohio State University seems to host a similar collection online:

Also, the University of Maryland seems to maintain larger collections of Japan-related resources, see e.g.

They're also offering an option to "Ask us" via chat, email, etc:


Post-WW II occupied Japan slides

Thanks, Rolf for your suggestions. I printed those web sites, and will look into them. Thanks, again.

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