The Weekly Standard
August 17, 2009 – August 24, 2009
Picture Perfect: The first Grand Tour with color film in the cameras.
Review by James F.X. O’Gara, The Weekly Standard
SECTION: BOOKS & ARTS Vol. 14 No. 45
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
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
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:
Kahn’s cameras recorded reactions in Palestine to the visit by British
Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, who had committed Britain to support
the creation of a Jewish homeland. His photographers visited Persia
(now Iran) just after the military coup that brought the new shah to
power; and they captured life in Afghanistan in the years after the
third Anglo-Afghan war.
They also witnessed the beginning of Iraq’s oil economy. In the main,
they witnessed the unwinding of the Ottoman Empire.
You can hardly read this collection without being conscious of the
remarkable research effort involved in bringing together hundreds of
thinly documented photos and attempting to write informative captions
for each. One wonders how long it took the author to figure out that a
particular building in Venice would later become a hotel and play host
to Ernest Hemingway, or that the costume of one Swedish woman marks
her as a denizen of Rättvik, not nearby Leksand, or that the
indigenous Sami women of Lapland began to wear more colorful clothes
in the 19th century with the advent of cheaper dyes.
The author introduces each part of the world with a concise essay,
making the overall effect somewhat like an endless (but interesting)
National Geographic article, or Robert Flaherty film set down on
paper. As with National Geographic, the writing is good but sometimes
veers into U.N.-speak, as when the author praises the work of
photographer Frédéric Gadmer in the proud and ancient African kingdom
of Dahomey: "[These photographs] bequeath an unswervingly candid yet
consistently sympathetic picture of African life at a time when
corrosively racist mythologies that denied the humanity of Africans
were colonizing the mental environment of the West."
Even today, color photography is not for everyone, and the past, as is
well known, happened in black and white, even the recent past: Nobody
wants to see a color shot of Buddy Holly on their CD or color footage
of James Meredith grimacing in pain after being shot on Highway
51. This lends many of Kahn’s images a vaguely unsettling quality,
especially images likely to resonate with Western readers such as the
destruction of Reims, or aviators preparing to take their biplane on a
surveillance mission over the Somme.
This is a book less about photography than about a kindly
philanthropist who set out to increase human understanding and found,
instead, war and rumors of war.
James F.X. O’Gara is a Washington-based photographer whose most recent
exhibit was of migrant workers in Cairo’s Manshiet Nasr neighborhood.