Archives of the Planet : colour photographs of the world 100 years ago

The early years of the 20th century, were a critical time in world history. In a world at the brink of war, mass-migrations, technological inventions (including photography), trade and economic inter-dependence – globalisation and cultural decline was inevitable. At this point, Albert Kahn (1860-1940), a French Banker sought to create a photo-archive of human heritage. His idea was to chronicle the cultural, historical and environmental loss foretold by industrialization. He was convinced, that ‘knowledge of foreign cultures would encourage respect and peaceful relations between nations’.

Refugees from the First Balkan War in Thessaloniki, Greece / CC0

Soon after the Lumiere Brothers invented the autochrome technology (1903), making colour photography commercially available, Kahn purchased his first autochrome camera. Autochrome photos were not only more accurate than the black & white photos, but could also be projected on screens. Between 1909-1931, Kahn commissioned 11 photographers and filmmakers to travel the world and “build a visual inventory of the transformations of his time”. The 72000 images and over 100 hours of video footage collected from 55 countries over two decades, resulted in the ‘Archives of the Planet’.

40 Photos from the Archives of the Planet

The photographers had been instructed to record buildings and monuments, clothes, tools, weapons as well as urban and rural scenery. Religious or secular rituals and events (weddings, funerals, dancing) were meant to be video-recorded. Everything that involved the motion of human beings, animals or machines formed part of the archive.

The Indian Subcontinent

Nearly a century after these were shot, one wonders about what influenced a photographer’s choice of recording or obliterating a certain place, people or practice.

More photos from around the world

The archive features the world (planet) in conflict, and as it changed because of technology and politics.

In his own words, Albert Kahn described the archive thus:

(a) kind of photographic inventory of the surface of the globe, as inhabited and worked by man, as it was at the beginning of the century… (in order) to fix in the memory once and for all the different aspects of human activity, the customs and practices, the inevitable disappearance of which is only a question of time

Albert Kahn, on “Archives of the Planet”.

A deeper look through the archive begs the question on how different are we really, from one another? Back in 1909 Albert Kahn anticipated all that was at stake – he hoped technology could save our collective cultural decline; today, with more advancement in technology the efforts of cultural institutions to build bridges continue.

Accessing the Archives of the Planet

In 1931, the project came to an abrupt end when Albert Kahn went bankrupt (after the 1929 stock market crash). Nearly a century later, the fruits of his passion project are available online, with a free license. See it here.

If you visit Paris, head out to the suburbs to see the Albert Kahn Museum and Gardens. Though not all on display, you can see the autochromes there!

“Life. We must seize it wherever it is, abroad, in the street, everywhere”

Albert Kahn (1860-1940)
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