on The Dawn of the Color Photograph: Albert Kahn’s Archives of the Planet, by David Okefuna (Princeton)

“A phenomenon of such extended malignance as the Great War does not come out of a Golden Age,” wrote Barbara Tuchman in The Proud Tower (1962). The two decades preceding the war still provoke historians to ask why a period of such innovation and productivity led to unprecedented mass violence. “Today, the period before the outbreak of the First World War is often regarded as idyllic,” says Philipp Blom in his new book The Vertigo Years: Europe 1900-1914 (Basic Books). “To most people who lived around 1900 this nostalgic view with its emphasis on stability and grace would have come as a surprise. Their experience was … marked by fascinations and fears much closer to our own time. Then as now, rapid changes technology, globalization, communication technologies and changes in the social fabric dominated conversation and newspaper articles … the feeling of living in an accelerating world, of speeding into the unknown, was overwhelming.” The pre-war years were hardly peaceful. The United States declared war on Spain and invaded the Philipines, and war waged between the Russians and the Japanese, Italy and Libya, the British and the Boers, the Turks and the Greeks.

kahn2.jpgAlbert Kahn, a wealthy French banker, not only feared for the future, but envisioned it in global terms. His first move as an internationalist and pacifist was to create Les Bourses de Voyage Autour du Monde in 1898, one of the first major scholarship programs to support foreign travel for academics. In 1907, immediately after Auguste and Louis Lumière gave their first public demonstration of color photography created with a standard glass-plate camera, Kahn came up with the idea to use this breakthrough for a dual civic purpose. First, Kahn was concerned that local culture all over the world was vanishing through what we now call globalization. Color photography offered a way to record life in a startling way that could not be easily ignored. Also, he believed that making the foreign more familiar would advance peace. The Lumière brothers’ autochrome “was based on a granular compound consisting largely of potato starch,” writes David Okefuna. Kahn took receipt of his first autochrome plates in 1908 and started his photo project, Les Archives de la Planète.

Kahn5.jpgOkefuna continues, “For the next twenty-two years, Kahn used his private fortune to recruit professional photographers, supply them with trunk-loads of autochrome plates (and often ciné film cans as well) and dispatch them all over the world.” The images confirm the historical assessments of Tuchman and Blom, documenting the conditions of poverty and privation among peoples in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, the Americas, and Europe. But we also witness the beauty, simplicity, and character of ways of living. Kahn’s photographers visited more than 50 countries. Here we see the first color photos taken in Vietnam and Brazil, the final years of traditional Celtic life in Ireland, the ruin of Anatolia during the expulsion of ethnic Greeks, the wandering Hindu monks of Bombay, blueberry picking in Sweden, the geishas of Kyoto, children in the Jewish ghetto of Marrakesh, and a view of the old waterways of Basra (once known as the “Venice of the East”). Kahn’s shooters also captured the environment of the Great War. Barred from the front lines, they created a portrait of the war from the rear; these are images we rarely see.

kahn1.jpgMost of the shooters were professionals, but some of the early images were taken by Kahn’s chauffeur, Alfred Dutertre, during Kahn’s own 1908 tour of North America, Japan and China. By 1928 he had accumulated 72,000 autochromes. The 370 photographs in The Dawn of the Color Photograph represent the world’s most important collection of early color prints. This wonderful book, enriched by Okefuna’s notes and evaluations, not only reproduces and displays the work in a generous and handsome fashion but draws one into the story of an age. I mean to say that Okefuna has produced something extremely thoughtful and valuable, exceeding my expectations of a “book of photography.” Every image, supplemented by Okefuna's informative captions, offers a significant cache of information.

The title The Dawn of the Color Photograph would seem to offer an occasion to consider the impact of color technology on the audience and artists, but Okefuna takes up the subject only peripherally. Also, there is little information about how Kahn made the imagery available to the public or how it was received. Okefuna is the executive producer of the BBC television series The Wonderful World of Albert Kahn and his interests lie in the documentary aspects of Kahn’s project.

The crash of 1928 and its shock waves bankrupted Albert Kahn, bringing his project to an end. In 1870, as a Jewish boy growing up in Alsace, he experienced the German invasion of the territory which was annexed by Germany. In 1940, the year he died, he witnessed Hitler’s Wehrmacht sweep through France.

[Published November 19, 2008, 336 pp., 9.25 x 9.25, $49.50 cloth]