Today I received my first copies of Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy: The Last Man in the World and was about to write about that, but then I got distracted by some old photographs of Russia in 1909-1912. In color. Not tinted. They were taken by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii with a color separation technique he invented using glass plates. The colors had long since leached out, but modern computer graphics wizards figured out a way to restore them. Voila – color photographs of pre-revolutionary Russia. Very cool, I thought, but I expected them to look like the usual tinted daguerrotypes. They didn’t. It’s very disconcerting. They look just like modern color photographs of a different time, but my brain tells me that can’t be true. Russia in 1909 was in black and white – we all know that.
I’ll show you a few examples, though to really appreciate them I suggest you go to the Library of Congress exhibit web site where you can click on the images to see full-size versions. Here’s the photographer himself:
The spa at Ekaternin Springs, probably not much different from what Elizabeth Bennet would have seen a hundred years earlier:
Lots of people have obsessed over anachronistic details in the 1995 TV adaptation of Pride & Prejudice, one of which is that Darcy’s second proposal takes place in front of a cornfield whose straight rows show it was planted by modern machinery. I thought of that when I saw this picture of agricultural fields in Samarkand. No straight lines need apply!
These pictures make me feel profoundly disoriented. I expect photographs of different eras to be either blurry black and white but authentic, or sanitized color modern recreations where everything is seen through the filter of present-day styles and expectations. You can tell a regency-set film from the 1980s from one in 2005 because they each appeal to ideas of beauty common then.
It makes me think about my own mental images of Regency life. I’ve taught myself to imagine the smells, the dirt, the poverty of the era, but this makes me realize that I’m still imposing a movie type of sensibility over my own images. I can’t subtract all my own expectations from it. Imagine Charlotte Lucas missing some of her teeth – not at all unlikely – but in my mental images everyone has all their teeth. After looking at these pictures, I’ve decided to try to create a regency color photograph in my mind. It makes me wonder about a lot of my regency writing.