The Dawn of the Color Photograph: Albert Kahn’s Archives of the Planet

The Dawn of the Color Photograph: Albert Kahn's Archives of the Planet BY David Okuefuna. Princeton University Press. Hardcover, 336 pages. $49.

The cover of The Dawn of the Color Photograph: Albert Kahn's Archives of the Planet

In historical photographs, events from long ago are easy to distinguish from more recent ones: The distant past is always in black-and-white. Even though experiments in color photography began in the mid-nineteenth century, color wouldn’t be widely used until the mid-1930s, and even then mainly for documentary and commercial purposes. But in 1909, two years after the Lumière brothers invented the Autochrome process, French banker and philanthropist Albert Kahn initiated a twenty-two-year project (brought to an end by his ruin in the Great Depression) to photograph the world in color. Known as the Archives de la Planète, this astounding body of work, some seventy-two thousand images, captured life in more than fifty countries, many during moments of profound upheaval. Kahn’s hired photographers sat with French soldiers in the trenches, walked through a Smyrna razed in the Greco-Turkish War, and witnessed Emir Faisal’s campaign to free Arabia from Ottoman control. But the archive is particularly remarkable for its documentation of lands and peoples once little seen by Western eyes. The collection boasts what may be the earliest color photographs of the Taj Mahal and the Egyptian pyramids, as well as striking portraits of Kurdish women in northern Iraq, dancers from the Khmer ballet in Angkor, and itinerant Mongolian hunters on the steppes near the Russian border. But does the past change when we see it in color? In many instances, the vivid palette brings the images closer to our present moment, making the world—and the distance of history—frighteningly small.