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Lyle Rexer intros two new eye-opening editions from early 20th c. Russia.

Stog siena by Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii
8"x8" ($35) | 11"x11" ($75) | 16"x16" ($260) | 20"x20" ($650)

Siren by Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii
8"x8" ($35) | 11"x11" ($75) | 16"x16" ($260) | 20"x20" ($650)


Collect these editions

These are no ordinary 20x200 photo editions. Our two new releases from Russian artist Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii are innovative turn-of-the-twentieth-century images that pay homage to the artist’s vast and diverse homeland. Radiating vibrant color and technically radical for their time, these photographs are a testament to an endeavoring talent. To introduce them, we consulted an internationally-recognized art authority: Lyle Rexer. The New York-based independent critic, curator, writer, and educator knows his stuff. He’s authored numerous books, essays, and articles spanning the arts and architecture, including the first book in English to contextualize and unpack the phenomenon of abstraction in photography. Below, he delves deeper into Stog siena and Siren
— Team 20x200

The pleasures of archives are twofold: discovery and exploration. In life the order is usually reversed: we explore in order to discover. But through 20x200’s two new Vintage Editions, I discovered the vast archive of the Russian photographer Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii, and since have had the opportunity to explore its territory. Make no mistake: it is a literal continent. Between 1905 and 1915, Prokudin-Gorskii traveled the empire of Russia and photographed all aspects of it, from its customs and landscapes to its architecture and people. Examining a time capsule of worlds that no longer exist is one of the great fascinations of archives, of course, but as suggested by the two lush images, Stog siena (haystack) and Siren (lilacs), there are other more satisfying rewards here.

This period under Czar Nicholas II, just before the revolution, was the great one for photographic cataloguing of Mother Russia. The Siberian photographs taken by Russian teams under the auspices of the American Museum of Natural History’s Jesup North Pacific expedition offer another doorway to the past. The two projects have in common a desire among the photographers to exceed their mission. They sought to collect information, of course, but just as importantly, I think, to fashion images that would evoke wonder, pride and appreciation for the diversity they encountered. Prokudin-Gorskii, especially, seems constantly in search of formal beauties. And if his haystack in Stog siena recalls the paintings of Monet, it seems—especially in the color version produced by 20x200—anything but accidental.

One of the most compelling appeals of Prokudin-Gorskii’s work is his pioneering use of color photography. Where many photographers of the time might have created hand-colored lantern slides on glass (for public presentations), Prokudin-Gorskii shot his glass plate negatives in triplicate, with three color filters. When projected all at once in overlay through corresponding filters, the images appeared in vibrant color. Printing was a more complicated issue, and few prints were actually made. It’s likely the photographer built his own camera in order to make simultaneous exposures. He also made prints in sepia tone, an equally emphatic aesthetic gesture. 20x200’s Stog siena and Siren use a digitally combined color image from the Library of Congress, which owns the archive, carefully corrected and printed.

We can imagine what a herculean task it all must have been for Prokudin-Gorskii to create these images, and yet the results rarely betray the difficulty. Prokudin-Gorskii’s far-flung churches, for example (so important to the Empire’s identity across such immense territory), are as evocative and vivid as paintings by Edward Hopper. And his interest in flowering plants produced lovely detailed floral studies like the lilacs of Siren. There is a wonderful self-portrait of the photographer, in hat, coat and stick, sitting on a rock by the Korolistskali river. I like to imagine he’s thinking: Is there any place more important than here? Will the world ever again be as beautiful as it is now?

—Lyle Rexer

The 411 on Lyle Rexer
Lyle Rexer is an internationally recognized critic, writer and curator. Educated at Columbia University and Merton College, Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, he is the author of several books on art and photography, including The Critical Eye: Fifteen Pictures to Understand Photography (2019); The Edge of Vision: The Rise of Abstraction in Photography (2009) and Photography’s Antiquarian Avant Garde: the New Wave in Old Processes (2002). In addition, Lyle Rexer has published hundreds of catalogue essays and articles on art, architecture, and photography and contributed to such publications as The New York Times, Harper’s, Art in America, Aperture, Parkett, BOMB, and DAMn. He has lectured at many institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, Yale University, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Institut Valencia d’Art Modern in Valencia, Spain. As a curator, he has organized exhibitions in the United States and internationally. He teaches in both the graduate and undergraduate programs at the School of Visual Arts and is a columnist for Photograph magazine. Headshot: daguerrotype by Jerry Spagnoli.




Tags: new art