Doesn’t an impromptu field frolic sound like an ideal August activity? This time of year is made for spontaneous outdoor diversions, especially the effortless kind that invite lingering. Our new edition from vintage artist Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii feels like an end-of-summer daydream. Get ready to romp through Cornflowers in a field of rye, shot by the turn of the twentieth century Russian photographer and chemist in 1909 using avant-garde color separation negatives.
Cornflowers, native to Europe, are often regarded as a weed, growing unwanted in fields of grain—in this case, rye. Hardier than wheat and better suited to Russia’s cold, harsh climate, rye is particularly popular in the Russian bread tradition, where it’s baked into dark, dense, deeply flavored loaves of black bread. Though the lush rye grasses pictured here carry the symbolic weight of a culinary culture, the cornflowers are what catch the eye. Prokudin-Gorskii’s emphasis on them asks us to reconsider the maligned plant, to appreciate these bright blue beauties for what they bring to the landscape, perhaps even for their role in the ecosystem.
Sponsored by Czar Nicolas II, Prokudin-Gorskii criss-crossed his native country in a railroad-car turned darkroom between 1905 and 1915, capturing agriculture, architecture, daily life, and myriad other corners of the empire. But beyond documentation, Prokudin-Gorskii deployed his pioneering technical prowess to produce innovative, effort-intensive, vibrant images. Unlike many of his contemporaries, the artist used triple-frame black-and-white negatives with three exposures through color filters (one red, one blue, and one green) to create photos that could be printed in color, likely shooting on a camera he built himself to enable the necessary simultaneous exposures. The result is reality dialed up—deep greens, crisp whites, and scene-stealing blues in one close-cropped pastoral scene. The magnetism of the cornflowers and blurred vignette style are almost hallucinogenic in their appeal. Cornflowers in a field of rye isn’t just a visual record of the Russian countryside, but an aesthetic exercise (and achievement) in its own right.
Lyle Rexer—an internationally recognized art authority, critic, curator, and academic—put it best in the intro he penned for our two debut Prokudin-Gorskii editions:
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.
Cornflowers in a field of rye presents an opportunity to time travel to early 20th century Russia, zooming in on a lick of the rural landscape and evidencing cutting-edge photo technology of the time. It’s also an artistically experimental, texturally rich, and remarkably hued image that will hold it’s own in any art collection. And for us, it’s a chance to take a deep breath, commune with nature, and transport ourselves to a languid, late-summer afternoon—any time of year.
With art for everyone,