If a person’s life could be summed up in a series of concise chapters, Albert Kahn’s would have two. The first involved earning a fortune, becoming highly educated, mingling with Europe’s intellectual elite, travelling extensively, and giving his money to a greater good. The second, much briefer chapter, sees him lose all his wealth and die a poor, forgotten man. Of course, this concise version does not do his life justice. By reading into the details of the first chapter, one discovers a revolutionary venture he dedicated a great part of his life to – one which has received relatively little attention. Despite mixing with some of the world’s most influential people, his life and life’s work went almost entirely unrecognised. Our past is peppered with unsung heroes, but their work usually went unnoticed because they had no substantial social clout, no wealth, no way of getting attention. Kahn, though, had enough wealth, connections and influence to have the whole world listen. Unfortunately, historical events would ultimately destroy his potential for success.

In 2007, the centennial anniversary of the Lumière brothers’ invention of colour photography, led to the discovery of the works of a group of photographers. A wealthy philanthropist had hired them to travel to over fifty countries and document the world. The photographs were known as autochromes: to produce one, one had to expose a glass plate, covered with thousands of potato granules (died violet, red and green), to light so it would pass through the granules and onto special emulsion, giving a full-colour image. Autochromes are some of the most beautiful and ephemeral colour photographs ever witnessed: “its blues have a soft intensity, like a crystal seen through gauze. Its greens vibrate and crackle with a verdant energy. Its reds are fierce and arresting” – David Okuefuna. The photographers’ work began in 1908 and went on for twenty-two years. By 1930 they had collected 72,000 autochromes. This collection is known as “Les Archives de la Planète” (The Archives of the Planet) and the wealthy philanthropist who designed and funded it was Albert Kahn.

Kahn’s ambitions for the project went beyond documenting the world. He hoped to use the medium of photography to promote world peace and understanding by recording the centuries-old world that was in the throes of major upheaval at the turn of the century due to the rapid modernisation process that was taking place and the First World War that was soon to come. The public was mesmerised to see the world immortalised for the first time in amazing colour. Unlike Renoir’s portraits, a contemporary of Kahn’s, who captured people in joyous occasions wearing fine clothing, Kahn’s project reflected the world as it truly was: harsh, beautiful, diverse, desperate, sometimes happy, sometimes sad. The collection was immense in scope and substance, important culturally, historically, and artistically and has lain virtually unknown till almost a century later.

The Archives open up a myriad of discussions and points of interest, one of which is the representation of women. At the time, women were unlikely to be afforded equal status with men, or to be granted the freedom of travelling unaccompanied.  Kahn, though, took the bold and revolutionary step of hiring Marguerite Mespoulet and Madeleine Mignon-Alba and sending them to Ireland. Their photographs of locals’ daily struggle in the fishing village of Claddagh are some of the most striking of the Archives. Mespoulet and Mignon-Alba’s most engrossing images are those of women, capturing their independence, resilience and pride – something Kahn perhaps realised a male photographer would struggle to capture so well at a time when relationships between men and women were less relaxed. One autochrome presents fourteen-year-old Mian Kelly, in 1913, posing in a traditional Claddagh crimson garment. Interviews with locals reveal her to have been “a perfect example of the ‘Irish colleen’”. The power of autochromes surely lies with their ability to take the modern viewer back to a forgotten time and merge art and history in visceral colour.

Not just visually innovative, the Archives are anthropologically and socially important because of their aim to capture images of people and their customs. The autochromes abundantly illustrate the costumes of the time, all so diverse due to the varying geographical areas covered by the project. The bright colours of the fabrics worn by women are often unexpected, given that they are taken in an age we still associate with black and white. One can only marvel at the myriad of hair adornments seen, for example, in the autochrome of a Mongolian princess with an elaborate headdress (“boqtaq”). The Archives are a collection of some of the only colour photographs taken at that time: autochromes were expensive and their glass plates were fragile, so few invested in them.

Kahn’s Archive represented a shift in photography: the images portray a stark distinction in poses, mood and general forms of representation to those of photographs that went before them. Late nineteenth-century photography is often associated with formal, austere images of people from the middle and upper classes, posing in fine clothing, hiding any hint of their real lives, presenting illusions of perfection. However, Kahn’s project captures people from all walks of life, from poor peasants to rulers and royalty. There is a raw quality to these autochromes as we see subjects laugh, look sad or even scared. Nothing demonstrates this quality better than the painful image of a Mongolian woman imprisoned in a box for an unknown crime, with her head hanging out of the one available hole, with no escape and no access to food or water. The Archives exhibited a trend in photography that would explode in years to come: one where photographs expose and romanticise reality. Today people feed off images of people destined to lives of misery and suffering: not because it is a form of entertainment, but because it makes them think and feel.

In reference to autochromes, Alfred Stieglitz said: “the possibilities of the process seem to be unlimited. Soon the world will be colour-mad”. The world did become colour-mad, but it was not mad for Kahn. His life story is incredible, yet his end is rather disappointing and saddening. Born into a French Jewish family in 1860, he worked in the bank industry whilst studying for a degree under the instruction of Henri Bergson, who became a life-long friend of his. He met regularly with the likes of Rudyard Kipling, Albert Einstein, André Gide and Auguste Rodin to discuss international cooperation and understanding. By his thirties he was a self-made millionaire and knew people at the highest levels of government, in France and abroad. But with the Wall Street Crash everything came to an end; he became bankrupt and could no longer fund the project.

The socio-political and economic circumstances of World War One, the Inter-War years, and the Wall Street Crash explain why The Archives were never given attention. What is more, the glass plates could not be reproduced to reach mass audiences and were too delicate to exhibit around the world: few had the time or money to show an interest in art then anyway. The Archives act as evidence that in times of crisis, peoples’ need to survive suppresses ideas that do not provide immediate relief. Kahn lived another eleven years in relative poverty and was left with little: little except the rich memories of an extraordinary life filled with vibrant colours, thought-provoking encounters with the protagonists of the arts, sciences and law, and the world’s beautiful people, places and lives that by that time had largely disappeared.

Les Archives de la Planète are now exhibited in Kahn’s beautiful home outside Paris at the Musée Albert-Kahn.

Images scanned from ‘The Wonderful World of Albert Kahn’ by David Okuefuna.