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.

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

From the front page

Kim Williams seen through window with arms half-raised

The interesting Mr Williams

At a time when the ABC faces more pressure than ever before, is its new chair the right person for the job?

Exterior of the Department of Treasury, Canberra

Tax to grind

Tax reform should not be centred on what we want, but on who we want to be

Rehearsal for the ABC TV show ‘Cooking with Wine’, March 13, 1956

Whose ABC?

Amid questions of relevance and culture war hostilities, the ABC’s charter clearly makes the case for a government-funded national broadcaster

Tony McNamara in New York City, January 2024

Pure things: Tony McNamara

How the Australian screenwriter of ‘Poor Things’, who cut his teeth on shows such as ‘The Secret Life of Us’, earnt his second Oscar nomination

In This Issue

Back to college

The Hampdens & Vampire Weekend

Children of the revolutions

Sixteenth biennale of Sydney

Horrorshow

Michael Haneke’s ‘Funny Games’

In the wake of magellan

The voyage of globalisation’s forefather


More in Arts & Letters

David Malouf, March 2015 in Sydney

An imagined life: David Malouf

Celebrating the literary great’s 90th birthday with a visit to his incongruous home of Surfers Paradise to discuss a life in letters

Tony McNamara in New York City, January 2024

Pure things: Tony McNamara

How the Australian screenwriter of ‘Poor Things’, who cut his teeth on shows such as ‘The Secret Life of Us’, earnt his second Oscar nomination

Jeffrey Wright in ‘American Fiction’

The dread of the author: ‘American Fiction’ and ‘Argylle’

Cord Jefferson’s satire about Black artists fighting white perceptions of their work runs out of ideas, while Matthew Vaughn’s spy movie parody has no ideas of its own

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Pictures of you

The award-winning author kicks off our new fiction series with a story of coming to terms with a troubled father’s obsessions


More in Noted

Cover of Lauren Oyler’s ‘No Judgement: On Being Critical’

Lauren Oyler’s ‘No Judgement’

The American author and critic’s essay collection moves from her gripes with contemporary cultural criticism to personal reflection

Cover of Sheila Heti’s ‘Alphabetical Diaries’

Sheila Heti’s ‘Alphabetical Diaries’

The Canadian writer’s presentation of sentence-long entries from her diaries, organised alphabetically, delivers a playful and unpredictable self-examination

Cover of ‘Kids Run the Show’

Delphine de Vigan’s ‘Kids Run the Show’

The French author’s fragmentary novel employs the horror genre to explore anxieties about intimacy, celebrity and our infatuation with life on screens

Still from ‘Boy Swallows Universe’

‘Boy Swallows Universe’

The magical realism in Netflix’s adaptation of Trent Dalton’s bestselling novel derails its tender portrayal of family drama in 1980s Brisbane’s suburban fringe


Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality