The dawn of the color photograph: Albert Kahn's archives of the planet

By David Okuefuna

Princeton University Press, $49.50 (336p)

ISBN-10: 0691139075

ISBN-13: 978-0691139074

Published in conjunction with the BBC television series The Wonderful World of Albert Kahn, this handsomely published collection brings together over 300 autochromes - a type of early color photographs - made from 1909 to 1929. The common visual imagination of the world from the invention of photography to the mid-Twentieth Century is largely in monochrome. 

Picture the Civil War, World Wars I & II, or any other event large or small during those years, and because it was photographed in black and white, it likely conjures up similar imagery in the mind’s eye. Color photography existed from around 1900 but because of its expense, scarce availability, and technical limitations, it was not widely considered a tool for reportage or fine art until as late as the 1960’s.  How shocking (and delightful) it is to see the first several decades of the 1900’s rendered in beautiful color. Albert Kahn, a wealthy banker and philanthropist commissioned several photographers to capture the world using the relatively new autochrome process.  During the twenty years of Kahn’s project, he amassed nearly 72,000 color images. 

Like National Geographic (whose contemporary photographers were also periodically using autochromes) Kahn’s mission was to capture and document the variety of the planet’s lifestyles, cultures, and geography. Because they provide colorful glimpses into a bygone age - from documentation of Laplanders in traditional garb to an assembly of troops in the WWI trenches - the selected images are inherently interesting. Plus the autochrome process provides a lovely aesthetic. Because of the visible grain in the prints, they have a pointillistic, soft and dreamy quality.  Squint, and you could mistake them for impressionist paintings. 

A few rare images manage the trifecta of using the autochrome’s color and texture effectively, containing a thoughtful arrangement of graphic elements, and being historically relevant (e.g. 'Moreuil, France 1916' in which a nurse tends to WWI soldiers while bathed in Vermeer-styled light). Unfortunately most of the shots are more like staid vacation snapshots than well-composed images with the dynamic framing we’ve come to expect from quality documentary photography.  Regardless of the collection’s shortcomings, the part-painterly/part-realistic/full-color depiction of this departed era maintains its appeal across 300 pages. After buying this book you may find yourself demanding an 'autochrome filter' for your camera phone or creating a set of Photoshop actions to post-process images to look like the ones in this vivid collection. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions held by or any affiliated companies.


Total comments: 10
By Fraucha (Sep 19, 2011)

Funny, looking through the Nazi archives, I found thousands of color photographs as well as color films. Hitler insisted on color. Archives transported them to B&W because the Allies did not have a reliable system to save color. Funny though, in the 1970's those Nazi color negatives and films looked pretty good.

john france
By john france (Sep 17, 2011)

This is a great book but it was published in 2008. While its always interesting to see reviews, why can't we have more recent ones than this. The BBC series accompanying this book was also broadcast a few years ago and is available as a DVD on ....guess where?

By SM7 (Sep 14, 2011)

Welcome to I mean Sorry, it's easy to get confused.

By RKGoth (Sep 14, 2011)

And? There's a load of free, useful information on the site. And frankly, I quite LIKE having my attention drawn to interesting books - curiously when I see one I'm interested in, where do you suppose I go to buy it? Usually from the many used booksellers, where some obscure titles (like Carver Mead & Conway's VLSI text, which has a lot of technical info relevant to sensor fabrication and design) are a penny! A PENNY! FOR KNOWLEDGE! Okay, I have to pay postage, but really, I'd buy ANY knowledge I find for a penny, let alone some I've intentionally sought out.

There's so little which promotes Amazon on here, it's just whining for the sake of your own voice to attack one of a handful of potentially sales-related items of content.

By SM7 (Sep 14, 2011)

I don't know if you've noticed, but the front page has at least 3 book reviews on right now. Sorry to say, but the actual camera reviews are much scarcer than they used to be before the site moved to Seattle after the Amazon purchase. It's headed in an entirely wrong direction, imho. If I want to read book reviews... I don't go to a camera review site. When I go on DPReview, I expect reviews of camera gear.

- Don't get me wrong, I love books, and have way too few shelves for them.

1 upvote
Barney Britton
By Barney Britton (Sep 18, 2011)

And I don't know if you've noticed, but the vast majority of the new content is produced by guest writers from outside of the site... reviews are unaffected.

1 upvote
By 453C (Sep 19, 2011)

RKGoth said it best:

"There's so little which promotes Amazon on here, it's just whining for the sake of your own voice to attack one of a handful of potentially sales-related items of content."

Barney, thanks for the book blurbs. I'll look them up at the library. See, SM7? A pathway to free knowledge, thanks to the Evil of Amazon. ;)

Cy Cheze
By Cy Cheze (Sep 14, 2011)

Are the reproductions in the book based on prints of the source photos or the glass plates?

Color printing of photos is another technology whose history is under-appreciated. Mass reproduction of color images in magazines and advertising material was every bit as important as the development of color photography.

One wonders what share of "color plates" one sees in old books or magazines had the saturation enhanced by paintbrush or color pencil. Some look like monochrome shots with color added later. This was certainly common with early "color" portrait photographs and be cheaper than autochrome or three-filter processing.

By goodgeorge (Sep 13, 2011)

For those who like theese old color autochromes, i can recommend Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky - a potent photographer from the same era.

1 upvote
Henrik Herranen
By Henrik Herranen (Sep 14, 2011)

One correction: Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky (SPG) didn't use the autochrome process that Kahn used. He used a three-pass B&W glass plate process with RGB colour filters.

The difference is that SPG's pictures were more difficult to take and required the objects to stand absolutely still for a few seconds, otherwise fun colour artifacts would ensue (these are evident in many of his pictures).

However, when everything matched, SPG's images were of spectacular quality and unsurpassed contrast, gradation and resolution. After all, B&W glass plate photography was very developed already then, and in "current terms" his best images would easily match a good 10+ MP Bayer matrix sensor DSLR.

Total comments: 10