The dawn of the color photograph: Albert Kahn's archives of the planet
By David Okuefuna
Princeton University Press, $49.50 (336p)
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.