The fantastic ambitions of rich men should never be underestimated. Throw enough cash at something and even a failure can have staying power.
When Albert Kahn, a wealthy French banker and philanthropist, decided he wanted to commission a photographic “archive of the planet” he wasn’t joking. And though the idea of cataloging the earth seems whimsical in scope today, the pictures he helped create between 1909 and 1931 hold our attention like few others from the era.
They are some of the finest examples of early color pictures made using the Lumière brothers’ innovative Autochrome process. Autochromes employed microscopic grains of dyed potato starch to filter the color spectrum into three additive shades. The results, when viewed through a stereoscope or back-lit by a light box, were among the first natural color images in that their tones were derived from the color spectrum of light and not the artist’s hand.
In all, Kahn’s team of cameramen visited fifty countries to collect 72,000 photographs, some of which are among the first color images ever made in places like Vietnam, Brazil, Norway, and Mongolia. But with its essentialized worldview, Archives of the Planet also laid groundwork for the kind of exotic voyeurism made ubiquitous by publishers like National Geographic.
Nonetheless, the images Kahn was instrumental in producing retain a sense of idealism which is hard to ignore—their unnervingly contemporary feel a projection of a distinct color palette clashing with the unselfconscious postures of another era.
Kahn’s ambitions were cut short in the 1930s when he lost his fortunes to the Great Depression. But for a brief period he had hoped to promote peace and cultural solidarity through photography—a sentiment to which the medium has returned frequently, if unconvincingly, ever since.
Albert Kahn’s Archives de la Planète are housed at the Musée Albert-Kahn in Paris.