At the dawn of colour photography, Albert Kahn set out to 'archive the planet'. Michael Lesy considers the dreamer who thought a new medium would save mankind.
The Dawn of the Color Photograph: Albert Kahn's Archives of the Planet David Okuefuna Princeton University Press Dh180
In the Borges short story Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, an American millionaire finances an encyclopaedia about an imaginary planet. Once published, the encyclopaedia proves to be so detailed and comprehensive that it gives birth to an alternate reality.
Between 1912 and 1930, a real millionaire - a fabulously wealthy, French-Jewish banker named Albert Kahn - actually did finance an enterprise as grand as the one underwritten by Borges's imaginary American. But Albert Kahn's money paid for an archive, not an encyclopaedia. Instead of volumes of alphabetical entries about imaginary countries, people and events, Kahn's archive contained 72,000 colour photographs taken in more than 40 countries, by photographers he hired and sent around the world. Kahn paid a scholar to oversee the project and classify the photographs, which were stored in neatly labelled boxes in the library of his estate outside of Paris. Every other Sunday, Kahn invited special guests to see his collection, which he called The Archives of the Planet. They were the only ones who ever saw it: Kahn died in 1940, a few weeks after the German army took Paris. Not a single one of his trove of images was exhibited or published during his lifetime. Now Kahn's archive, which resides at a museum in his former home, has been hauled out for several BBC television specials and a lavish book, The Dawn of the Color Photograph, which presents almost 400 plates from his vast collection. The thinly documented book tells a small part of the story of Kahn's utopian endeavour - but it turns out that the rest of the story is stranger still.
Kahn came to Paris in 1876 as a refugee from Alsace, the French province that Prussia annexed after the Franco-Prussian War. The French defeat - and the anti-Semitic, nationalist paranoia that eventually metastasised into the Dreyfus Affair - marked Kahn for life. Pacifism, secularism and universalism became his credo. The archives - written with light in a language that all could read - were meant to embody Kahn's philosophy, to depict the human race as one enormous family.
Kahn was only 16 when he came to Paris, and his first move was to apprentice himself to a private banker. Three years later, he enrolled in college, where his first teacher was Henri Bergson, who would later become one of the most influential philosophers of the first half of the 20th century. The two were only a year apart in age, but Bergson became Kahn's mentor, and then his lifelong friend. By the time Kahn was 25, he'd made his first fortune, selling investments in South African gold and diamond mines. By the time he was 32, he'd become joint owner of the bank where he had begun as an apprentice. Ten years later, in violation of French government policy, he brokered war loans to Japan during its conflict with Russia.
On his 10-acre estate in Boulogne-Billancort, he planted three beautiful connected gardens - one French, one English and one Japanese. He also began to travel - to Egypt and Indochina, to Japan and South America, to the British Isles and Canada. Kahn's travels and his gardens might appear today as the self-indulgent hobbies of an idle rich man. But 100 years ago, Kahn and his mentor Bergson understood such activities differently. To enter a garden - a meticulously designed, meticulously maintained botanical space - was to experience a culturally mediated form of nature. To leave one's residence and enter such a space was to voluntarily displace oneself in order to be changed. Travel served the same transformative purpose. Not books alone, said Bergson. Not words, either. Experience - well-informed experience - was the path to full knowledge.
That is why, in 1898, soon after Kahn made his first South African deals, he endowed a travel scholarship, to be administered by the Sorbonne. Kahn's "Around the World" fund was his first act of public philanthropy. Young teachers, "chosen from the intellectual and moral elite of the nation", were to be the fund's recipients. The sole purpose of Kahn's scholarships was to enable the flower of French youth "to enter into sympathetic communication with the ideas, feelings, and lives of other peoples."
By 1906, there were sufficient numbers of grant recipients for Kahn to organise the "Around the World Society". Auguste Rodin, Anatole France and Bergson accepted Kahn's invitation to join the Society as honorary members. Every two weeks, members of the Society received Sunday luncheon invitations to Kahn's estate. For three hours and three hours only, from 2pm until 5pm, members were permitted to explore Kahn's gardens. After lunch, but before the gardens opened, special guests addressed members of the society. Nobel laureates and prime ministers, internationally renowned scientists and poets - everyone from Albert Einstein to Colette to the King of Yugoslavia and the sister of the Emperor of Japan - came to address the Society.
In 1911, Kahn began to meet with eminent French academics to solicit their support for a worldwide photographic survey project. It was an undertaking so grand that he previously dared to discuss it only with Bergson. One distinguished French geologist described his meeting with Kahn in a letter to a colleague that gives a sense of the project's vast ambitions - and its fatalistic undertones. "This morning," wrote the geologist, "I received a visit from Mr Albert Kahn, the founder of the Around the World Society scholarships... He came to ask me if I could help him in the realisation of his vast plans... While there is still time, Mr Kahn wishes to create what he called 'The Archives of the Planet'... to put into effect a sort of photographic inventory of the surface of the globe as inhabited by man at the beginning of the 20th century."
As Kahn himself explained: The photo expeditions he envisioned were meant "to fix, once and for all, those practices and modes of human activity whose fatal disappearance is just a question of time." The geologist put Kahn in touch with another scholar, a geographer named Jean Brunhes - a pioneer practitioner of a discipline called human geography. It was a new discipline, devoted to the study of the way humans leave their mark on the surface of the earth. Instead of debating information gathered from books, human geographers believed that only direct observations, based on travel and fieldwork, could provide accurate information. Cameras, not notebooks, were their essential tools.
Brunhes accepted Kahn's invitation to direct the survey project, and within months, Kahn donated 300 million francs to the College de France to endow a chair in human geography for Brunhes. In 1912, in an article in The Bulletin of the Paris Ethnographic Society, Brunhes explained Kahn's visionary plans to his fellow academics: "The essential task... of 'The Archives of the Planet', is to employ instruments which have just been born in order to capture and conserve the facts of the planet that are about to die."
Since photography had been invented 70 years earlier, the "instruments which had just been born" were not still cameras. Two of these newborn devices are familiar: the cine camera (the motion picture camera invented by Edison in 1887) and the cinematograph (the movie projector perfected by the Lumiere brothers in 1895). The third was the "autochrome", the first viable colour photographic process, which had been invented by the Lumieres in 1903 and first marketed in 1907.
An autochrome was a glass plate that had been coated with a layer of coloured starch granules (dyed red, green and violet) and then coated with a layer of light-sensitive silver salts. After being exposed, the plate was then developed in two stages: the first stage resulted in a negative image; the second stage produced a positive. The result was a unique object - a glass slide with a colour image. To be seen, the plates had to be illuminated from behind.
The glass plates that became autochromes were large (9 x 12cm), heavy, expensive and easily damaged before and after exposure. The view cameras used to expose the plates were cumbersome. Worse yet, the exposure times needed to produce autochromes were lengthy - not so long as to required that subjects be braced, but long enough to require them to remain absolutely still for several seconds. The result: well-lit landscapes and stultifying still poses. After 1912, when Kahn's photographers began sending their work back to Paris, it was their autochromes that the Around the World Society guests viewed when they returned to Kahn's residence in the late afternoon.
Kahn's photographers made their pictures as France, Germany and England smashed themselves to bits during the First World War. They kept making pictures as the victors imposed their will on places like India and Iraq, Syria and Palestine, Persia and Indochina.
Bergson's ideas - in particular his belief that an élan vital, a universal energy source, played through life like a kind of supernal music - informed the decisions that Kahn made (and refused to make) as he hired photographers and sent them out to make pictures of the world. Personal experience, not the study of books; character, not professional expertise; openness and alertness, not a history of obedience to orders; spontaneity, curiosity and intuition - these were the criteria Kahn used to select his photographers. These criteria should have - or could have - ensured that the 10 men and one woman Kahn hired to conduct his planetary survey were inspired amateurs and artists. But it was not to be: the first photographer he hired was his chauffeur. The second was a former postcard photographer from Bordeaux.
Groups of native people - Cornish fisherman, Thai peasants, Hindu ascetics, Moroccan bellydancers, Vietnamese opium addicts, Mongolian princesses, Japanese monks and Indian maharajas - sit or recline, dressed drably or ornately. Almost all of them - except, perhaps, a pair of French sailors, a Vietnamese concubine, an upended steam locomotive east of Smyrna and a Mongolian criminal nailed into a crate - strike postcard poses that might just as well have been in contemporary issues of National Geographic.
During the First World War, Kahn's camera operators worked cooperatively with French military intelligence. The best pictures they made were images of ruined cathedrals, grave sites and wounded men attended to by nurses. After the war, Greek and Turkish forces took turns turning Smyrna into a pile of bricks and its inhabitants into corpses. Kahn's photographers made pictures of the ruins. Kahn, inspired by Bergson, may have encouraged his photographers to work intuitively, but the pictures they produced were formulaic. Perhaps their failure was caused by the unwieldy autochrome technology; perhaps they failed because Brunhes instructed them to make pictures based on categories ("Evidence of nonproductive use of land; evidence of plant and animal conquest; evidence of economic destruction") outlined in his book Ethnography and Human Geography. Perhaps they failed because they were simply unimaginative - photographers who made pictures that looked like pictures they already knew - that is, pictures that looked like postcards.
Viewed without captions, the images in The Dawn of the Color Photograph have only the passage of time to justify their lavish reproduction. But the book's captions - written with a maddeningly predictable political correctness - make the images look like illustrations in a well-intentioned secondary school textbook. ("Sitting in the interior courtyard of a house are these children from a relatively prosperous family in Hanoi. While the sons of afuent parents would be sent to local schools - and later, possibly, to more advanced seats of learning in France - their sisters were afforded no such opportunities in French Indochina.")
As readers work their way through the book's plodding chapters (Western Europe, followed by the Americas, followed by the Balkans, followed by?) they might remember that at about the same time that Kahn's camera operators were making yet another set of pictures of yet another group of native people dressed in colourful garb, great photographic artists like Eugene Atget, André Kertész, Paul Strand and August Sander were producing revelatory pictures of other people standing in other places. (Sander assembled his own archive of 40,000 portraits, which he called People of the 20th Century.) The difference between the work of those photographic artists and Kahn's well-paid and well-provisioned camera operators is the difference between a poem and a laundry list.
At the same moment that Kahn dreamed of his global survey, gained support for the project, deployed his photographers and began to stock his archive, the ocean of images that now surrounds us began to fill. Kahn, puzzlingly, appears to have greeted this development with indifference. Consider a few examples: In 1898, an American firm called the Detroit Publishing Company bought the rights to a secret Swiss lithographic process and began to produce and distribute colour postcards derived from black-and-white photographs. Detroit Publishing sent teams of photographers into the world equipped with the most advanced photographic technology available. The Company's photographers made pictures of everything that Jean Brunhes would have ever wanted: cities and towns, farms and factories, public buildings, parks, resorts and monuments. By 1900, Detroit Publishing was selling seven million images a year in the United States and Europe.
Also, before there were movies to see or televisions to watch, three-dimensional stereograph images were ubiquitous. Middle-class families routinely ordered boxed sets of stereo views from catalogues or bought them in drugstores. Within weeks of the latest natural disaster or catastrophe there were stereograph views on sale. By the 1890s, American public schools routinely used boxed sets of stereo views - 600 views in a set - in their current events, history and geography classes. By 1920, the American publisher Underwood and Underwood estimated that it had produced and distributed three hundred million stereo views worldwide since it began operations in 1854.
In 1904, the London Daily Mirror became the first newspaper to be illustrated entirely with halftone black-and-white photographs. Starting in 1899, illustrated weekly papers - L'illustration in Paris, the Illustrirte Zeitung in Leipzig, the Illustrated London News in Britain, and Harper's Weekly and Leslie's Weekly in America - began to use a dense mix of halftone photographs and woodcuts derived from photographs to illustrate their articles. The photo floodgates had opened even before that in America: as early as 1896, The New York Times and The Chicago Tribune boosted their circulations with Sunday supplements illustrated with halftones. By 1914, National Geographic had begun to publish colour halftone reproductions of autochromes in its magazine.
Finally, in 1912 the Pathe Company opened the first movie theatre entirely devoted to news and views of the world. Three other French companies - Gaumont, Éclair, and Eclipse - actively produced such films as well. The French called such movies "actualities"; the British and the Americans called them "newsreels". The purpose of this brief account is to suggest that by 1914 Kahn could not have ignored the waves of images lapping at his feet. Why did he back away from them?
His staff recalled that every morning, from 5.30 until 7.30, he read the daily papers and clipped articles from them. Why didn't he do the same for all the images that inundated him? Why not collect and archive them? Did he consider them too common? Too commercial? Too coarse? No doubt he did. Kahn considered himself to be a connoisseur. High-minded and refined. Too refined to collect common things. So he would commission his own singular images. Unprecedented, beautiful things that he would keep safe. The world that produced the waves of images that soaked his trouser legs was destroying itself. All too soon, his images would be remembrances of things past. The world would vanish. Kahn's Archive - his ark of images - would survive.
But Kahn was also a reformer and an educator who wanted to promote international peace and brotherhood. So why did he keep his autochromes so closely guarded? Why did he show them to so few people? Why did he never arrange for their exhibition? Why - once colour printing press technology was available - did he not arrange for their publication? This is the mystery at the heart of Kahn's grand project, and there are no answers; we can only speculate. Perhaps Kahn kept the images out of circulation because he, like Bergson, believed in the power of direct, personal experience. Enter a garden and be changed. Travel far and wide and be changed. Most of the visitors who saw the autochromes were people who Kahn already had sent abroad with his scholarship fund. By 1931 there were 186 members of his Around the World Society, and they - and Kahn's special guests - were the only people to view the slides in his lifetime. Perhaps he hoped that the images in his Archive would remind them of what had happened to them when they travelled abroad. Every two weeks, they'd walk through his gardens. Every two weeks, they'd be reminded that the world wasn't inhabited by strangers.
But this vanguard of enlightened cosmopolitans was far too small to change the world, and the quaint utopian dreams of Albert Kahn, his postcards of harmonious human brotherhood, were cast into obscurity by the savagery of the Second World War - by the disaster they were meant to forestall.
Michael Lesy is a professor of literary journalism at Hampshire College and the author of Wisconsin Death Trip and 12 other books, most recently Murder City: The Bloody History of Chicago in the Twenties.