The Archive of the Planet
The Edwardians in Colour - BBC Four, five part series broadcast from 20th May 2007
Review by Mary Warner Marien
In his seminal essay, 'The Body and the Archive', Allan Sekula concluded that 'roughly between 1880 and 1910, the archive became the dominant institutional basis for photographic meaning.' What Sekula deemed the archive's 'voracious optical encyclopedism' may be exemplified by the early twentieth-century efforts of French banker-financier Albert Kahn (1860-1940), to create a visual record of everyday life around the globe.
Initiated in 1912 and ending during the Great Depression, Kahn's worldwide archive amassed film and photographs from about fifty countries. The Archives de la Planète comprises 4,000 black and white photographs, approximately 100 hours of film, and 72,000 early colour photographs produced by the autochrome technique, the largest collection of its kind in the world.
Kahn employed both professional and serious amateur camera operators, with whom he sometimes travelled. For his round the world trip, he even enlisted his chauffeur to make pictures. To supervise the archive's cinematography and photography, Kahn hired Jean Brunhes (1869-1932), professor of geography at the Collège de France and author of the book, Human Geography (1910). In his day, Brunhes's attention to human interactions with the natural world made him a somewhat controversial figure in a field then more devoted to the earth's climate and physical features.
Kahn's objective was to record human diversity in work and everyday life. Noting the contrast between industrialized countries and the rest of the world, he hoped 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'. Moreover, Kahn believed that when his collection was viewed by people 'who hold in their hands the destiny of nations', it would motivate them to embrace human differences and, thereby, contribute to world peace. Concurrently, he established the Société Autour du Monde, and invited politicians, professors, and captains of industry to dine and debate issues of the day. The Société also sponsored student travel.
To Kahn, camera-based imagery was the universal modern language. Although some of his photographers kept diaries and logs, Kahn does not seem to have required that extensive, analytical textual accounts also be rendered. He founded the archive on the notion that images made with the most state-of-the-art techniques, such as motion picture film and the autochrome, could only be interpreted from a modern perspective.
It does not take a Sigmund Freud, Kahn's near-contemporary, to speculate that the financier might have conceived the Archives de la Planète to compensate for the 'inevitable disappearance' of indigenous pre-capitalist folkways resulting from his own extensive global investments. Yet, however self-serving and naïve, Kahn's pacifism reverberated with pre- and post-World War I intellectual life. One common perspective shared among various Western peace movements was that the world was so interconnected that a local war could easily develop into a world war.
Unlike many in his time, Kahn did not sentimentalise folk culture. He pictured it in decline, which seemed to him to be inevitable and rapid price of modernism, which he prized. Other photographic efforts around the world recorded the look of so-called vanishing peoples, through a nostalgic and sentimental lens.
The autochrome technique that Kahn favored was invented by the ingenious Lumière Brothers soon after their development of motion pictures. It involved depositing tiny potato-starch granules, dyed red-orange, green, and blue, on a glass plate, which was then coated with the light-sensitive emulsion used for black and white photographs. The grains served as colour filters and the resulting image was a unique direct-positive photograph. Basically, the autochrome was a slide, requiring light to be passed through it so viewers could view the image. It remained the most advanced method for making colour photographs until Kodachrome was introduced in 1935.
Unlike The National Geographic magazine, which served up photographs of people in the less developed world to countless readers, beginning in 1888, the Archives de la Planète was seen by few in its original form. Consequently, the producers of the BBC programmes had the happy challenge of contextualising Kahn's work. Unfortunately, they chose to title the series, Edwardians in Colour: The Wonderful World of Albert Kahn, which cannot help but remind North Americans of a popular, long running Sunday-evening television show. Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Colour, later called The Wonderful World of Disney, ran for about thirty years. This is not a frivolous association, because sometimes the BBC series' content and narration border on the cheery outlook of variety shows.
Overall, the programmes' emphasis is the current value of Kahn's archive. The complex ethnic and religious identities in the pre-World War I Balkans are shown as they were expressed in the distinctive dress and gestures of people living there. The archive's extensive record of the large Jewish and Muslim communities living in pre-World War I Thessaloniki, Greece in 1913, when the archive's images were made, is cast as the unwitting prologue to the mass migration of Muslims out of the city when it fell under Greek control, and to the Nazi eradication of Greek Jews during World War II.
The programmes' producers do not suggest that Kahn and Brunhes were prescient. Still, viewers may feel a twinge when the Archives de la Planète is made to illustrate subsequent historical events. Whatever else he had in mind, Kahn did not set out to document world poverty and injustice. Thus, when early twentieth-century Ireland and Sicily are shown, they do not, despite the voice-over promptings, appear harshly disadvantaged. Indeed, given the autochrome's radiant hues, the whole world looks, well, colourful.