The Magazine

Picture Perfect

The first Grand Tour with color film in the cameras.

Aug 17, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 45 • By JAMES F.X. O'GARA
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The Dawn of the Color Photograph
Albert Kahn's Archives of the Planet
by David Okuefuna
Princeton, 336 pp., $49.50


In a passage in his Discourse on Method that echoes the first lines of the Odyssey, Descartes describes passing his youth "visiting courts and armies, mixing with people of diverse temperaments and ranks, gathering various experiences, testing myself in the situations which fortune offered me, and at all times reflecting upon whatever came my way so as to derive some profit from it."

Descartes called this studying the "great book of the world." At the turn of the 20th century, a well-to-do Frenchman with that same gallic fixation on systematizing decided to create his own great book of the world, bankrolling photographers to travel the world to document cultures and civilizations from China to Cambodia using the spanking new technology of color film.

That man, about whom we hear a great deal in this occasionally apple-polishing volume, is Albert Kahn. The project he undertook is known as the Archives of the Planet. "Is" because the archives still exist, at Kahn's former estate in Boulogne-Billancourt just outside the Paris périphérique, where Kahn lived out his days, expiring in 1940 shortly after the arrival of German troops.

Kahn's hope had been to create a contribution to human knowledge, but also to mutual understanding, and eventually to world peace. In a sort of cosmic joke, this philanthropist and pacifist embarked on his quest shortly before the outbreak of the Great War and widespread upheaval in the Middle East.

He commissioned photographers (opérateurs) over a period of two decades, sending them off to remote corners of the world, weighted down with hundreds of pounds of photographic apparatus, to tangle with larcenous customs officials and vexatious colonial overseers. The British in China come in for special mention.

What his photographers accomplished is remarkable. First, their photographs, or "autochromes," are genuinely beautiful. The autochrome process used large sheets of film covered with tens of millions of grains of dyed potato starch, an improbable system that nevertheless yielded beautiful reds and greens.

Second, his photographers went everywhere. Not just obvious waypoints like Beijing but also Mongolia and Cambodia. Not just New York and Montreal, but also Niagara Falls and Calgary. Not just Baghdad (where they photographed Armenian orphans produced in numbers by the 1915 genocide), but also clerics in Najaf, Kurds in Zakho, and mullahs in Shiraz. A schoolyard in Hamadan, in latter-day Iran, overflows with Jewish schoolgirls.

The opérateurs made it to Cairo and the pyramids of Giza, but also to more challenging destinations such as Aleppo and Hama. The accomplishment is all the more amazing in that they did it all with cameras the size of an Easter ham and slower to reload than a flintlock rifle.

In the Bekaa Valley, Kahn's photo- graphers captured British soldiers preparing to relinquish their responsibilities to the French, who had picked up new mandates in Lebanon and Syria at Versailles. For their part, the British were heading off to assume new mandates in Iraq, Palestine, and Jordan. In this, as in so many other instances in this volume, Kahn's photographers have stumbled onto a historical pivot point, the sort of innocent but pregnant image that reminds one of nothing so much as the third-grade class pictures of a serial killer. (It only looks like a bunch of British soldiers milling around on a dusty road.)

Photography may be low art to some, but it has an edge on writing in the truth-telling department. Thucydides wrote of the Thracians "bursting into Mycalessus" during the Peloponnesian War, and "sparing neither youth nor age but killing all they fell in with, one after the other, children and women, and even beasts of burden." Thucydides intended his book to be "a monument for all time," and indeed it is, but Albert Kahn has pictures. His photographer Frédéric Gadmer was on hand to document the aftermath of the sack of Smyrna, with the loss of 120,000 souls. Photographs such as those taken by Gadmer of the comprehensive devastation visited on that ancient Mediterranean city by the Turks have a credibility that written accounts of other atrocities necessarily lack.

Kahn's opérateurs were present at so many other critical moments. In author David Okefuna's words: