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By Nina J P Evans

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Wonderful World of Albert Khan


Born 1860 in France the philanthropist Albert Kahn made his money investing as a trader in the financial markets, he made several risky investments and the deals paid off, he made a fortune in the diamond mines in South Africa. In 1908, Albert Kahn traveled to Japan on a business trip and it was there that he discovered an interest in photography. Japan fascinated him; he made investments in the counties emerging markets. Japanese culture and society interested him greatly, the elite, the business partners and hospitalities afforded, but in the everyday lives of ordinary people living and working in the rural country.

The first photographers were taken by Khan himself, then he got his chauffeur to do a week’s training in photography and as a photographer became his loyal and trusted traveling companion. He obviously thought a lot of this guy’s companionship and creative potential. The two of them went on an epic expedition around the world. The results must have been more than a success because afterwards his inspiration and determination didn't falter.

Between 1908 and 1930 he used his vast personal fortune to hire photographers to undertake one of the most ambitious photographic projects in the history of photography: A photographic inventory of human life on earth. Khan recruited a team of photographers whom travelled to more than 50 countries all around the world. Taking with them the most advanced technology autochromes the world’s first user-friendly photographic system capable of taking true colour pictures. Getting to these places was no small feat; imagine traveling with trunk loads of cumbersome equipment in the days before long-haul flights. The documentary says:
Albert Khan wanted to use photography to record the diversity of human existance, as a means to promoting international understanding and peace. In the years before the First World War, his photographers documented the timeless traditions of cultures across the continent, but Khan's autocrosmes also bear witness to the emergence of nationalism, a potent force that would turn Europe's peace and stability into a cataclysm of ethnic cleansing and war (as quoted from the Edwardians in Colour).
The archive of photographs is of incalculable value 72,000 colour, 4,000 black and white stills and 100 hours of film. It is the most important collection of early colour photographs in the world. The documentary quotes:
Despite his enduring legacy, Kahn died penniless in 1940, ruined by the Wall Street crash 11 years earlier, a pacifist living in an occupied country. Yet according to the director of the Musée Albert Kahn in Kahn’s house at Boulogne-Billancourt, he retained his optimism about humanity to the end. And his archive lives on (as quoted from The Wonderful World of Albert Khan).
Looking at the images today I think that they’re evocative of E M Forster’s Room with a View, set in 1908 depicting the Edwardian’s repressed culture with humor and vivacity, showing the thrill of young men and women undertaking a Grand Tour of Italy. Khan photograph’s recorded such people and places and then went so much further a field. They are also reminiscent of Ian Mc Ewan’s Atonement set in 1935, an emotional and affecting story leading up to the war and the aftermath. Khan’s photograph’s recorded not only the events leading up to WWI, but the aftermath and rebuilding of lives and buildings afterwards.

These photographs today illustrate a remarkable human achievement in both technology and endeavor. The images have a real sense of honesty and authenticity, they have captured the times, far-flung places and people documented and recorded perhaps a little picture postcardesque with shots being arranged and people posing for pictures, adding a unique sentimental value as well as being a great historical record. Looking at these few images I selected you can appreciate their style, colour and sense of wonder, as well as their quality. The colourful photographic gem, Khan himself must have observed at the beginning.


“Once I was in Paris for one day and I stood at your feet and looked up. I did not enter and go up because I have a horror of heights, but you looked good form below.” ~ Isaac Asimov

The wonderful world of Albert Kahn – Colour Photographs from a Lost Age (book)
The wonderful world of Albert Khan (documentary)
The Edwardians in Colour (documentary)
Special Thanks - Yvonne Moser

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