August 2008

Arts & Letters

‘The Wonderful World of Albert Kahn: Colour Photographs from a Lost Age’ by David Okuefuna

By Alexandra Coghlan

The Buddhist monk aflame in Saigon of 1963; the mushroom cloud of the Nagasaki atom bomb; September 11's Falling Man: the familiar visual touchstones of the conflicts of our age. Yet before the era of reportage and the impact photo, before the concept of - let alone the term - globalisation, one man sought to use photography not only to reflect but to shape international politics. As an acquaintance of his wrote: "His dream was to unify the world of the future ... and that all racial and religious intolerance be destroyed."

Albert Kahn's achievements were almost as epic as his philosophical ideals. By the time of his death, in 1940, this Edwardian visionary and pacifist had made and lost a fortune in Paris, travelled across continents and overseen a vast anthropological project that yielded 120 hours of documentary film and more than 72,000 photographs, capturing scenes of daily life across the globe: from Canada to Cambodia, Syria to Switzerland. His attempt to create a comprehensive record of human life, the Archives of the Planet, yielded the earliest colour photographs of such sites as the Taj Mahal and Angkor Wat, while delicate images of the Balkans, Western Europe and the Middle East truly represent a "memento mori for a lost age".

David Okuefuna's beautiful coffee-table book showcases just some of the images from Kahn's remarkable archives. Each regional set of photos (arranged in careful editorial juxtaposition) is interspersed with a short contextual overview of the period, supplemented by the personal travel narratives of Kahn and his team of photographers. The result is a compelling social history that both narrates and depicts its story of a fragile and vanishing world.

Central to this book's appeal is its faithful reproduction of autochromes, the first true-colour photographs. Created using potato starch, these images are startling in the richness and delicacy of colour yielded by their granular, almost pointillist, texture. The deep blue of a geisha's kimono, the red flush of an Irish girl's shawl against a grey landscape and the acidic pinks and oranges of Vietnamese festival costumes all bring clamouring life to the hitherto shadowy and distant monochrome landscapes of the past.

Alexandra Coghlan

Alexandra Coghlan is the classical music critic for the New Statesman. She has written on the arts for the Guardian and Prospect.

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