Albert Kahn’s Photographic Mission



The messenger leans over his lunch. His fatigues are the blue of the sea. The instruments of war are set aside, forgotten during this brief respite. He sits in an empty plaza where windows are either boarded up or shattered. In vivid color, the image of the French conscript, finding a moment of silence in the midst of the First World War, could have been taken yesterday. Rendered with the care of a passionate opérateur, the photo is only one of 72,000 autochromes commissioned by the millionaire financier, Albert Kahn.

Kahn, hailing from the oft-contested province of Alsace in what is now eastern France had gambled on risky ventures in Japan and earned a reputation as a discerning investor, and had amassed a considerable fortune. As the industrial revolution spread around the world, Kahn perceived that the traditions and cultures of the past faced a confrontation with modernity that few would survive unscathed. So in 1909, he financed an expedition, inspired by his previous experience in Japan, to catalogue the myriad people of the world using a breathtaking and cutting edge technique; the autochrome.

Pioneered by the Lumiere brothers, the autochrome was a technique for rendering true color photographs in a time where the vast majority of photos were black and white, or else painstakingly colored by hand. Using a random mosaic of microscopic grains of colored potato starch to filter light onto an emulsion, the technique rendered exquisite photographs with a Neo-Impressionistic quality, in full, true color.

Sending photographers (or opérateurs) around the globe armed with this new technique, Kahn hoped to amass a catalogue of human life on Earth, and dubbed his project “The Archives of the Planet”. To quote Kahn, the project’s purpose was “to put into effect a sort of photographic inventory of the surface of the globe as inhabited and developed by Man at the beginning of the twentieth century.” His photographers were instructed to pay special attention to the human environment, man’s habitat and his everyday activities.

For five years his photographers primarily traveled around Europe, documenting the plethora of traditions in Europe and abroad. They captured some of the last Gaelic settlements in Ireland,


the nomadic customs of the newly independent Mongolia,


and the diverse traditions of rural French society.


The deep diversity of France’s varying tribes was well known to Kahn, hailing as he did from the German and Jewish influenced Alsace-Lorraine. He was convinced that displaying French exoticism to a French audience was a way of naturalizing and accepting the exotic encountered the world over. Emblematic of this local exoticism is this photo of Bretons in northwestern France.


Early in the second decade of the century, his photographers were sent to the Balkans, where they found the deep and irreconcilable divides of inequality, religion and ethnicity that had plagued the region for centuries, and would soon culminate in the fiery conflicts of the First World War. These photos provide a glimpse of the now mostly vanished Muslim populations of Greece and Serbia.



They found a panoply of cultures living side by side, and were able to capture much of it in vivid detail before it all came crumbling down under the destructive forces of nationalism. The following is a staggering picture of Armenians living in Istanbul.


By 1914, the world had entered World War I and many of Khan’s photographers had been dispatched to cover the war at the front. Over the course of the war Kahn’s photographers were often asked to provide their images for use in propaganda. Many of their images capture soldiers bravely poised for battle or highly patriotic displays of France’s big guns.


Other photos were more nuanced and sensitive, like this one juxtaposing the innocence of youth with the machinery of battle.

And yet others would never be fit for mass distribution. The ruined cities, the graves, the latrines, the corpses, and the two men joined at the knee in a last attempt to revitalize their rotting stumps, were all documented, but it did not serve the national interest to propagate such photos. Images like this, with their foreboding views of no man’s land and trenches, remained uncirculated to further the war effort.


Ironically, Kahn did not publish the photographs that might reveal the barbarity of war and advance his pacifist mission because he recognized a credible threat from the Germans. Instead, these photos remained relegated to Kahn’s private collection.

But Kahn knew that his photos awaited a destiny far grander than a life of obscurity at his home in a Parisian suburb. The inhumanity of the First World War only strengthened his resolve to prevent war through the media of photography and film. When peace finally arrived, he dispatched his intrepid photographers with renewed vigor. Kahn was convinced that leaders in finance and the arts and sciences could dismantle the world’s cultural barriers and usher in a new internationalism.

He sent his photographers to the Middle East where a rising tide of Jewish nationalism and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire provided ample opportunity to document geopolitical forces that echo even today, and the lives that these forces affected directly.

In Palestine they encountered men whose way of life resonated with our conceptions of biblical times,


            People gaze cautiously at the camera in the newly French Syria,


            And Kurdish women carry water jugs in northern Iraq,


Kahn’s photographers travelled wherever France travelled. In French occupied Indochina, they were privileged to capture a rare scene of an upper class Vietnamese woman enjoying opium. All of the various accouterments of this profitable poison are there, as she lays back in serene repose.


The fantastic costume, culture, and ritual of Tonkin (as Vietnam was then known) were largely introduced to France via Kahn’s autochromes; it was through the immediate vibrancy of these photos that many French people came to comprehend that there existed art of superb refinement and value outside of the Western sphere.


In Dahoney, modern day Benin, Kahn’s cameramen documented the Voodoo traditions that were threatened by Catholic missionaries.


Kahn poured his fortunes into his self-appointed mission to document age-old cultures on the brink of destruction in the wake of twentieth century industrialization. In the late summer of 1929, on one of the last expeditions of the “Archives of the Planet” a photographer captured this aged fisherman and his weary wife in Volendam, Netherlands.


Two months later, the world was plunged into the Great Depression, and Albert Kahn’s fortunes were obliterated. His ten acres of Japanese, French, and English style gardens were repossessed, though he was allowed to remain in his house in the garden. The garden was eventually turned into a public park, but Kahn would still walk the grounds most mornings, likely pondering how he might still share his collection of 72,000 autochromes, and 120 hours of film, with the world.

There is no doubt that Kahn never forsook his humanitarian goal of promoting a more peaceful world. Having begun in 1908 by hosting weekly salons at his estate to discuss international affairs with the likes of Rudyard Kipling, Albert Einstein, and Rodin, he was soon fed up by mere talk. And so for twenty-two years he devoted all of his philanthropic resources to realize his pacifist ideals. Wielding the power of a brand new technology, he took action to fight against war and ceaselessly promote cross-cultural understanding through the visual media.

Unfortunately, Albert Kahn never found a way to promote his vision in his lifetime. His autochromes remained packed away in his estate up to his death. Albert Khan died in his home on the 14 of November 1940, during the Nazi occupation of France. Today, though, we have them, and can perhaps take from them the lessons that he wanted to share with the world.


Okefuna, David, prod. Wonderful World of Albert Kahn: Archives of Planet. BBC. N.d. Television.

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