That’s right: pre-WWI color photos, commissioned and collected by a wealthy Frenchman who largely is forgotten.
The Dawn of the Color Photograph: Albert Kahn’s Catalog of Humanity, by Maria Popova (The Atlantic)
In 1909, millionaire French banker and philanthropist Albert Kahn decided to enlist the era’s burgeoning photographic technology in a mission far greater than aesthetic fetishism, and set out to use the new autochrome—the world’s first true color photographic process, invented by the Lumière brothers in 1903 and marketed in 1907—to produce a color photographic record of human life on Earth as a way of promoting peace and fostering cross-cultural understanding. For Kahn, photography was a way of cataloging the human “tribes” of the world and constructing a vibrant, colorful quilt of our shared humanity.
Over the next two decades, until he was ruined by The Great Depression, Kahn dispatched a crew of photographers to more than 50 countries around the world, shooting more than 100 hours of film footage and 72,000 images in what became the most important and influential collection of early color photographs of all time. Yet, for decades, the collection—which spanned everything from religious rituals to cultural customs to watershed political events—remained virtually unknown, until it was rediscovered in the 1980s …
There’s a five-part BBC video series chronicling all this. Parts four and five leave a bit to be desired in terms of reproduction, but it’s better than nothing. Rather than embedding the vids, I’m linking you to YouTube.
Documentary series about Albert Kahn’s photographic Archive of the Planet. For a quarter of a century, Kahn supplied a team of photographers with the world’s first colour camera system and dispatched them across the globe. Their films and 72,000 photographs offer a unique insight into the formative years of the 20th Century.
Episode 01: A Vision of the World
This episode shows the pictures Kahn produced the first time he took his autochrome plates abroad during an epic round-the world trip in 1908.
Episode 02: Men of the World
This part tells the story of the circumnavigation of the globe by Kahn and his chauffeur, and the 1913 journey of Stephane Passet to China, Mongolia and India.
Episode 03: Europe on the Brink
When Auguste Leon visited Scandinavia in 1910, he found widespread deprivation and famine. In the Balkans he recorded the increasing volatility of Europe on the eve of war.
Episode 04: The Soldiers’ Story
During the First World War, Kahn dispatched his photographers to the battlefields, where they recorded in remarkably intimate detail the everyday lives of French troops fighting on the Western Front. The Soldiers’ Story shows the poignant images they captured as they journeyed through shattered landscapes of Eastern France. Their remarkable pictures also document the horrifyingly crude medical procedures at field hospitals; the first aeroplanes and the heavy armaments that were appearing in the war zone; the heroism of the nurses; and the endurance of an army which sustained more casualties than any other during The Great War.
Episode 05: The Civilians’ Story
Throughout the Great War, Kahn’s photographers travelled throughout France, documenting the impact of the conflict on non-combatants in the towns and villages.