The Archive of the Planet was the brainchild of the millionaire French banker and philanthropist Albert Kahn. Between 1908 and 1930, he used his vast personal fortune to generate what is now generally acknowledged to be the most important collection of early colour photographs in the world. At the time Kahn embarked on this project, colour photography was still in its infancy. French inventors Auguste and Louis Lumière had just marketed the autochrome – the world’s first user-friendly photographic system capable of taking true colour pictures.
As an idealist and an internationalist, Kahn believed that he could use this system to promote peace and greater understanding among the world’s cultures. So he spent a fortune to hire photographers and send them to more than 50 countries all over the world. Altogether, they shot more than 72,000 colour pictures: a snapshot of human life on Earth on the beginning of the 20th Century.
The exposure time of these photographs was quite long: up to 8 to 10 seconds, so anything moving in front of the camera would become a blur. Despite this, most of the images retain a natural look.
I’m astonished by the aesthetics of these images, so real, vivid and full of life (which cannot be said of black and white photography), and at the same time, resembling the aesthetics of 19th Century painting.
The photographers who documented Les archives de la Planete were not looking for the extraordinary but for the very essence of everyday life.
A selection of the images from the book The Wonderful World of Albert Kahn: Colour Photographs from a Lost Age: