On the eve of World War I, Albert Kahn hoped he could bring about world peace with the power of the color photograph.
In 1909, at the very dawn of color photography, the French banker Albert Kahn set out to visually document every culture of the global human family. With the fortune he had amassed selling securities from South African diamond mines and illegal war bonds to the Japanese, Kahn financed a team of photographers to spread across the world to take photos.
Over the next two decades, these artists and ethnographers produced more than 70,000 photos across 50 countries, from Ireland to India and everywhere in-between.
Kahn saw this project as a kind of antidote to the nationalism and xenophobia that had shaped his own life early on.
When Germany annexed his home province of Alsace in 1871, his family fled towards the west and eventually moved to Paris. As Jews, the Kahn family confronted a variety of bigotry and systemic obstacles in 19th century France, but young Albert (whose given name was actually Abraham) navigated these forces reasonably well and received a top-tier education.
In Paris, Kahn’s intelligence and financial success propelled him into the French elite. He fell in among an intelligentsia that included the sculptor Auguste Rodin and the philosopher Henry Bergson, who would win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1927.
These friendships and his early travels to 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.
Kahn began acting on these beliefs by establishing his “Around the World” scholarship in 1898. A precursor to many modern international exchanges such as the Fulbright Scholarship, Kahn’s autour du munde fund paid for successful applicants to travel the world for fifteen months following whatever route they fancied.
In addition to the scholarships, Kahn created a garden on his estate outside Paris with the same vision of global citizenry. The garden combined elements of French, British, and Japanese horticulture so as, Kahn believed, to amplify visitors’ ability to appreciate other cultures and develop a sense of harmony between them.
The scholarship and the garden were early efforts. For Kahn, everything changed with the development of autochrome. The aptly-named Lumière brothers invented autochrome – the first scalable form of color photography – in 1903/1904.
These same French brothers had also patented the cinematograph, one of the earliest motion picture cameras, a few years before. With this new technology, Albert Kahn had the tools to match his vision of connecting the cultures of diverse countries. He would then finance the creation of les Archives de la planète, “The Archives of the Planet.”
From 1909 to 1931, Kahn’s team traveled to 50 different countries, including Turkey, Algeria, Vietnam (which was then French Indochina), Sudan, Mongolia, and their native France. Their collective work totals 73,000 autochrome plates and over 100 hours of video.
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 neatly organized files in his home on the outskirts of Paris. Every Sunday afternoon, he invited friends and scholars to walk his gardens and, sometimes, peruse the global archives.
Despite his idealism of how knowledge of other cultures could cultivate good-will and peace between countries, Kahn seems to have believed that his photos existed for the viewing pleasure of society's elite. He only showed his autochromes to a few hundred people during his own 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.
Kahn’s fortune collapsed with the world economy at the end of the 1920s. By 1931, the money for the Archive of the Planet had run out. His vision of a more peaceful future also had its limits. Kahn died, 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 the suburbs to see the Albert Kahn Museum and Gardens. Though not all on display, the more than 70,000 autochrome plates are there, and the old banker’s gardens have been restored to their early 20th-century form.
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 of the early 20th century. Then, have a look at some of history's most famous photos that changed the world forever.