‘The Archives Of The Planet’: 77 Color Photographs Of The World In The Early 1900s

Published February 27, 2024
Updated April 5, 2024

From Parisian flower sellers to Chinese monks, see what the world actually looked like a century ago with these striking autochrome images.

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‘The Archives Of The Planet’: 77 Color Photographs Of The World In The Early 1900s
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At the dawn of color photography in 1909, French banker Albert Kahn set out to visually document every culture on Earth. Kahn envisioned the project as a kind of antidote to the xenophobia and nationalism that he'd witnessed throughout his life. Using the fortune he had amassed, he financed a team of photographers to snap pictures across the world.

Kahn's team would spend more than two decades taking photos. And they would eventually produce about 72,000 color photographs across 50 countries, from Ireland to India — and everywhere in between.

The final result was a stunning collection of images, appropriately named Les Archives de la Planète, or "The Archives of the Planet."

Albert Kahn's Formative Early Life

Born on March 3, 1860, in Marmoutier, France, Albert Kahn grew up in a Jewish family. When he was just a boy, the Prussians annexed his home province of Alsace-Lorraine in 1871, and so the Kahn family relocated to a different area of France. Eventually, Albert Kahn moved to Paris.

As Jews, the Kahn family confronted discrimination, bigotry, and systemic obstacles in 19th-century France. But young Albert (who had "Christianized" his given name Abraham), navigated these issues without any serious trouble and received a top-tier education thanks to his intelligence.

Albert Kahn

Musée Albert KahnAlbert Kahn, pictured in Paris in 1914.

In Paris, Kahn's quick rise as a financier meant that he could become a member of the French elite. He fell in among an intelligentsia that included the sculptor Auguste Rodin and the philosopher Henri Bergson.

These friendships and Kahn's early travels to places like Egypt, Vietnam, and Japan broadened Kahn's vision of the possible impact he might make on world politics. He developed a fervent belief in the power of travel and cross-cultural connection to bring peace to a world on the brink of war.

The "Around The World" Scholarship

Albert Kahn began acting on these beliefs by establishing his Autour du Monde ("Around the World") scholarships in 1898. A precursor to many modern international exchanges, Kahn's scholarship funds paid for young doctoral graduates to travel the world and explore new places.

"I ask only one thing of you," Kahn said to the scholarship winners, according to Apollo Magazine, "It is that you keep your eyes wide open."

Men In Front Of A Hindu Temple

Musée Albert KahnMen in front of a Hindu temple in present-day Lahore, Pakistan. 1914.

In addition to the scholarships, Kahn created a garden on his estate outside of Paris with a similar vision. The garden combined elements of French, British, and Japanese horticulture to amplify visitors' appreciation of other cultures and to develop a sense of harmony between them.

The scholarships and the garden were early efforts. But for Kahn, everything changed with the development of autochrome, the first practically applicable color-photography process. The aptly-named Lumière brothers (the French word for "light") patented it in 1903.

With this new technology, Albert Kahn had the tools to match his vision of connecting the cultures of different countries. He would then finance the creation of Les Archives de la Planète: The Archives of the Planet.

Albert Kahn's "Archives Of The Planet"

The Archives Of The Planet

Musée Albert KahnWomen in traditional clothing in Corfu, Greece. 1913.

From 1909 to 1931, Kahn's team traveled to 50 different countries, including Turkey, Algeria, Vietnam (which was then known as French Indochina), Sudan, Mongolia, and Kahn's home country France. Their collective work totals about 72,000 autochromes and over 100 hours of video footage.

Though the photographers' names — Auguste Léon, Stéphane Passet, Marguerite Mespoulet, Paul Castelnau, León Busy, and others — have slipped into the footnotes of history, their work immortalizes the faces, clothing, and habits of the peoples of Earth as they lived a century ago.

Kahn kept these incredible records in organized files in his home on the outskirts of Paris. On many weekend afternoons, he invited friends and scholars to walk his gardens and, sometimes, peruse the global archives.

Autochrome In Morocco

Musée Albert KahnInhabitants of Benguerir, Morocco. 1912-1913.

Despite his idealism of how knowledge of other cultures could cultivate goodwill and peace between countries, Kahn seems to have believed that his color photos existed mainly for the viewing pleasure of society's elites. He only showed his autochromes to a handful of people during his lifetime.

On the other hand, Albert Kahn was much more progressive than many contemporary advocates of cultural exchange, who mainly saw cross-cultural interaction as a chance for Europeans to "civilize" the rest of the world. For Kahn, the goal was celebrating the rest of the world just as it was.

The End Of The Photography Project

Albert Kahn's fortune collapsed with the world economy by the 1930s.

By 1931, the money for The Archives of the Planet had run out. His vision of a more peaceful future also had its limits. Kahn died in 1940, at the age of 80, only a few months into the Nazi occupation of France.

His Archives of the Planet project, though, still lives on. Visitors to Paris can drive out to the suburbs to see the Albert Kahn Museum and Gardens. Though not all of his images are on display, many of the historic autochromes can be viewed by the public.

Even decades after Kahn's death, the message of his legacy is clear: We are all, no matter where we're from, part of the same human family. We are not as different as those who wish to divide us would have us believe.

Go around the world with Kahn's photographers in the gallery above.

Next, see some of Edward Curtis' stunning photos of Native American cultures in the early 20th century. Then, have a look at some of history's most famous photos that changed the world forever.

All That's Interesting
A New York-based publisher established in 2010, All That's Interesting brings together subject-level experts in history, true crime, and science to share stories that illuminate our world.
Jaclyn Anglis
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.