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.

Cover: August 2008

August 2008

From the front page

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison during Question Time today.

Having us on

What job is the Morrison government getting on with, exactly?

Image showing Sidney Flanigan as Autumn and Talia Ryder as Skylar

Quiet desperation: ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’

Eliza Hittman’s abortion drama is marked by the emotional solidarity of its teen protagonists

Image from Rebecca, with Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs Danvers and Lily James as Mrs de Winter

Airbrushed horror: Ben Wheatley’s ‘Rebecca’

The new adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s gothic tale is visually lush, but lacks the nuance and ambiguity of the novel

Listening to Roberta Flack

‘First Take’, released 50 years ago, still echoes through the present


In This Issue

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Isabel Letham & Duke Kahanamoku

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

The wanderer

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

On the edge

‘Bright Air’ by Barry Maitland


More in Arts & Letters

Listening to Roberta Flack

‘First Take’, released 50 years ago, still echoes through the present

Body politic: ‘Boys State’

American democracy is documented in all its gangly, acne-mottled glory

In our nature: ‘Vesper Flights’

Helen Macdonald explores how the study of animals reveals unknown aspects of ourselves

Image of OneFour rapper J Emz

The trenches of Mount Druitt: OneFour

Australia’s most infamous hip-hop act is an all-Pasifika group born of Western Sydney’s violent postcode wars


More in Noted

‘The Time of Our Lives’ by Robert Dessaix

The memoirist’s latest, surprisingly unsettling instalment

‘The Lying Life of Adults’ by Elena Ferrante

The Neapolitan author returns to characters driven by compulsions and tensions of class

Cover of ‘What Are You Going Through’

‘What Are You Going Through’ by Sigrid Nunez

The late-life author of ‘The Friend’ delivers a chastening and discursive novel of mourning

Cover of ‘Little Eyes’

‘Little Eyes’ by Samanta Schweblin (trans. Megan McDowell)

Intimacy and privacy blur as people adopt cybernetic pets inhabited remotely by others, in this disturbing speculative fiction


Read on

Image showing Sidney Flanigan as Autumn and Talia Ryder as Skylar

Quiet desperation: ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’

Eliza Hittman’s abortion drama is marked by the emotional solidarity of its teen protagonists

Image from Rebecca, with Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs Danvers and Lily James as Mrs de Winter

Airbrushed horror: Ben Wheatley’s ‘Rebecca’

The new adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s gothic tale is visually lush, but lacks the nuance and ambiguity of the novel

Former prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull with a screenshot of Turnbull’s confirmation of signing the petition

The Corp’s bride

Despite a widely supported petition, the government is too scared to take on the Murdoch empire

Image of Yanis Varoufakis’s ‘Another Now’

Now, then: Yanis Varoufakis’s ‘Another Now’

The economist and author’s alternative future asks clarifying questions about the present


×
×