Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

May 24, 2012

A Trip Through Time

The Autochromes of Albert Kahn


Art, Articles

In 1909, the french banker Albert Kahn began his Archives of the Planet, a project as ambitious as its title suggests. During the next 22 years—and spanning a world war—Kahn sent a fleet of photographers to more than 50 countries around the globe to create a visual record. Today, the archive is housed at the Musée Albert-Kahn, located in the financier’s former garden estate in suburban Boulogne-Billancourt, just west of Paris. His collection of 72,000 perfectly preserved color autochromes documents a world on the verge of the modern era. Snippets of history we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in sepia tones are pictured in vivid color. These are snapshots of another time, but bright hues in most images render the subjects—including World War I soldiers and Vietnamese performers—immediate and full of life.

A self-made man, Kahn built his fortune on investments throughout the French Empire and beyond. The philanthropic impulse to create the Archives of the Planet grew out of his pacifist beliefs. According to David Okuefuna, author of The Dawn of the Color Photograph: Albert Kahn’s Archives of the Planet, Kahn hosted weekly salons at his estate, where politicians, businessmen, and academics discussed international affairs over cigars. But Kahn wanted to do more than talk. Introduced to the autochrome in 1908, he found his mission in its technology. As a stand against war, he documented the rich cultural diversity of the world.

Auguste and Louis Lumière, the same brothers who pioneered cinematography, developed the autochrome process. To create color images, each varnished glass plate was coated with microscopic grains of potato starch—each tiny bit dyed red-orange, green, or blue-violet, with black shading the in-between spaces. The equipment was expensive, fragile, and heavy, which made the journeys taken by Kahn’s photographers (across oceans and continents) all the more remarkable.

Included in the vast archive are shots from a steamship voyage Kahn made with his chauffeur, Alfred Dutertre, a budding autochromiste, to the United States. Among Dutertre’s grainy images from this trip are two contrasting sights: the first, Manhattan’s newly opened Plaza Hotel; the second, an earthquake-flattened San Francisco, only just recovering from disaster.

Later, when photographer Stéphane Passet journeyed through Russia en route to Mongolia in 1912, his odd equipment caused a stir among customs officials. Passet’s autochromes from Mongolia are mesmerizing. They depict ethnic Mongols in elaborate traditional dress poised against the barren steppes, which show just the barest hints of agricultural development.

Little is known about the interactions between the photographers and the people frozen in time on glass plates. Frédéric Gadmer’s images of Iraqi locals, for example, are formal compositions. Viewers, as armchair travelers, are left to fill in the details: to imagine the halting conversation between subject and shooter some 100 years ago. But in that gap between what we know and what we can only speculate sits Kahn’s pacifist purpose for Archives of the Planet. While peace remains ever elusive, and wars have reordered the globe, the autochromes illustrate the common humanity we share, making a case for cultural understanding.