Window to a Lost World

by Dorothea

“The Archives of the Planet”: Albert Kahn’s amazing photographic & filmic encyclopedia of a lost age.

Mongolia_1Mongolia – imprisoned woman – 1913

In 1909 the millionaire French banker and philanthropist Albert Kahn embarked on an ambitious project to create a colour photographic record of, and for, the peoples of the world. As an idealist and an internationalist, Kahn believed that he could use the new autochrome process, the world’s first user-friendly, true-colour photographic system to promote cross-cultural peace and understanding.

ItalyChurch in Verona – Italy – 1918

Kahn used his vast fortune to send a group of intrepid photographers to more than fifty countries around the world, often at crucial junctures in their history, when age-old cultures were on the brink of being changed for ever by war and the march of twentieth-century globalisation.

AlgeriaTribe in Algeria – 1909

They took the earliest-known colour photographs in countries as far apart as Vietnam and Brazil, Mongolia and Norway, Benin and the United States.

PlazaFirst color photograph of the Plaza Hotel in New York – 1908

Benin_2Benin – 1930

They documented in true colour the collapse of both the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires; the last traditional Celtic villages in Ireland, just a few years before they were demolished.

Ireland_1An Irish young woman in traditional Galway costume – 1913

And the soldiers of the First World War — in the trenches, and as they cooked their meals and laundered their uniforms behind the lines.

WW1_2A trench at the Somme – WWI

At the start of 1929 Kahn was still one of the richest men in Europe. Later that year the Wall Street Crash reduced his financial empire to rubble and in 1931 he was forced to bring his project to an end. Kahn died in 1940. His legacy, still kept at the Musée Albert-Kahn in the grounds of his estate near Paris, is now considered to be the most important collection of early colour photographs in the world.

Vietnam_3Traditional actors – Tonkin  (now North Vietnam) – 1915

Vietnam_4Opium smoker – Tonkin – 1915

Over 72,000 colour photographs and one hundred hours of film footage are the legacy of the “Archives of the Planet” project. This vast treasury is held in the archives of The Albert Kahn Museum in Paris – home to the most important collection of early colour photography in the world.

CambodiaAngkor Vat Cambodia – 1920

The project is the subject of an awe-inspiring BBC documentary (click to view), rare color photographs from 1908 to 1930 make you feel like a privileged eyewitness to a disappearing world. In this best-of-the-best collection, behold and marvel at ancient cultures, ordinary life and momentous events.

AKahnAlbert Kahn

The Albert Kahn Museum is based at Kahn’s former home at 14 rue du Port in Boulogne-Billancourt, a suburb west of Paris. The museum and gardens are open daily between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. from the beginning of May to the end of September and between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. for the rest of the year. It is easily reachable by Metro from the centre of Paris.

You can search the digitalized archives on the Museum’s website, it is very fiddly, but click here for the link. You can click on the map to find autochrome photographs or film per country.