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Albert Kahn’s photographic archive is a mesmerizing record of human history.

In 1909, the french banker Albert Kahn began his Archives of the Planet, a project as ambitious as its title suggests. During the next 22 years—and spanning a world war—Kahn sent a fleet of photographers to more than 50 countries around the globe to create a visual record. Today, the archive is housed at the Musée Albert-Kahn, located in the financier’s former garden estate in suburban Boulogne-Billancourt, just west of Paris. His collection of 72,000 perfectly preserved color autochromes documents a world on the verge of the modern era. Snippets of history we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in sepia tones are pictured in vivid color. These are snapshots of another time, but bright hues in most images render the subjects—including World War I soldiers and Vietnamese performers—immediate and full of life. 

A self-made man, Kahn built his fortune on investments throughout the French Empire and beyond. The philanthropic impulse to create the Archives of the Planet grew out of his pacifist beliefs. According to David Okuefuna, author of The Dawn of the Color Photograph: Albert Kahn’s Archives of the Planet, Kahn hosted weekly salons at his estate, where politicians, businessmen, and academics discussed international affairs over cigars. But Kahn wanted to do more than talk. Introduced to the autochrome in 1908, he found his mission in its technology. As a stand against war, he documented the rich cultural diversity of the world.

Auguste and Louis Lumière, the same brothers who pioneered cinematography, developed the autochrome process. To create color images, each varnished glass plate was coated with microscopic grains of potato starch—each tiny bit dyed red-orange, green, or blue-violet, with black shading the in-between spaces. The equipment was expensive, fragile, and heavy, which made the journeys taken by Kahn’s photographers (across oceans and continents) all the more remarkable.

Included in the vast archive are shots from a steamship voyage Kahn made with his chauffeur, Alfred Dutertre, a budding autochromiste, to the United States. Among Dutertre’s grainy images from this trip are two contrasting sights: the first, Manhattan’s newly opened Plaza Hotel; the second, an earthquake-flattened San Francisco, only just recovering from disaster.

Later, when photographer Stéphane Passet journeyed through Russia en route to Mongolia in 1912, his odd equipment caused a stir among customs officials. Passet’s autochromes from Mongolia are mesmerizing. They depict ethnic Mongols in elaborate traditional dress poised against the barren steppes, which show just the barest hints of agricultural development.

Little is known about the interactions between the photographers and the people frozen in time on glass plates. Frédéric Gadmer’s images of Iraqi locals, for example, are formal compositions. Viewers, as armchair travelers, are left to fill in the details: to imagine the halting conversation between subject and shooter some 100 years ago. But in that gap between what we know and what we can only speculate sits Kahn’s pacifist purpose for Archives of the Planet. While peace remains ever elusive, and wars have reordered the globe, the autochromes illustrate the common humanity we share, making a case for cultural understanding.

Sweden: In 1910, Albert Kahn and the photographer Auguste Léon, below, took a summer road trip through rural Scandinavia, documenting everyday Nordic culture.

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albert kahn
Benin: On a West African tour in 1930, photographer Frédéric Gadmer shot Chief Justin Aho surrounded by his wives in Oumgegame, just outside of Abomey, recognized today as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
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Vietnam: Members of the Saigon Theater wear brightly patterned traditional costumes as captured by photographer Leon Busy. When Busy shot this in the autumn of 1915, Vietnam was still part of French Indochina.
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Mongolia: On his first trip through Mongolia, Stéphane Passet spent four days exploring villages. He returned a year later in 1913 and framed an elegantly dressed aristocratic woman with horses, which were integral parts of the nomadic culture.
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England: In addition to his estate in France, Albert Kahn kept a house on England’s Cornwall coast. Photographer Auguste Léon posed Kahn’s guests on the cliff overlooking Carbis Bay on August 28, 1913.
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Germany: Georges Chevalier photographed sisters Hélène and Denise Lauth in Alsace during the summer of 1918 just months before the region declared independence from Germany, only to be occupied later by France.
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Jordan: Paul Castelnau met a Bedouin of Sudanese origin in 1918 in Aba el Lissan, the site of an Arab Revolt battle the year before.
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Morocco: In 1913, the same year he visited Mongolia, Stéphane Passet journeyed to Morocco. The robed women are from a village, or douar, outside of Sidi Kacem.
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Austria: A Tyrolian costume included a hennin hat, pictured here. Dated August 26, 1921, the photo is tagged as Italy, but before World War I, the region was considered part of Austria.
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France: Continuing his 1920 sojourn along France’s northwest peninsula, Chevalier photographed this married couple wearing traditional Breton dress.
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Iraq: Two young women, noted by Frédéric Gadmer as “Christians,” pose on a Mosul street in 1927.
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Morocco: During a 1913 mission through North Africa, Passet photographed a young man near Fez. The “TS” on his coat collar stands for Tirailleurs Sénégalais, a French Army infantry corps recruited from colonial Senegal.
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France: In Brittany, a pair of Chasse-Gueux, lawyers appointed by the church to round up vagrants, stand outside Cathedral St.-Paul-Aurélien in St.-Pol-de-Léon.
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Greece: In 1912 and 1913, the years of the First and Second Balkan Wars, photographer Auguste Léon framed a costumed trio on Corfu, a region seemingly untouched by conflict.
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Jordan: Paul Castelnau’s 1918 travels in the Middle East coincided with the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Pictured here in Quweira, Arabia (now Jordan), is Fayz Bey el Azm, a companion of Prince Faisal, who led the revolt with T.E. Lawrence.
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Holland: In the late summer of 1929, on one of the last Archives of the Planet missions, Passet photographed a Dutch fisherman and his wife in Volendam, Netherlands.
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Vietnam: An orderly shades the leader of the Ha-dong province. Leon Busy took a number of autochromes of this important man during Busy’s 1916 trip through Vietnam (then French Indochina).
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Canada: Frédéric Gadmer spent the spring of 1926 on a journey through Quebec, Saskatechewan, and Alberta. On May 13, he photographed four cowboys in ten-gallon hats at the Ranch Hazza in Calgary.
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Algeria: Jules Gervais-Courtellemont’s photographs of North Africa are some of the oldest autochromes in Kahn’s archive. These dancers and musicians from the Ouled Nail tribe (known at the time for its scandalous belly dancing) were photographed in Bou Saâda between 1909 and 1911.
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France: In the aftermath of World War I, Gadmer documented life on the streets of Paris. On May Day of 1920, he found soldiers guarding the Auteuil Métro station on the Boulevard Exelmans.
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Algeria: Shot as early as 1909, the image below shows a traditional weaving destined for the tourist trade—it spells out the word “souvenir.”
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VISIT THE MUSEUM
Located in Boulogne-Billancourt, one of Paris’s older suburbs, the Albert-Kahn Musée et Jardins is a 30-minute ride from the city center. Get off at Métro stop Boulogne— Pont de Saint-Cloud, and you’re a short walk from Kahn’s estate. Open year-round, the museum exhibits more than 1,500 images, 123 films, and 80 digital slideshows drawn from the Archives of the Planet autochrome collection. Rotating shows curated by museum staff focus on the 50 countries visited by Kahn’s photographers.

Meticulously restored to Kahn’s early-20th-century vision, eight acres of lush gardens surround the museum. The grounds, as much as the autochromes, represent Kahn’s fascination with world cultures and traditions. A Japanese garden sits just outside the gallery. Visitors can wander through a tea garden filled with stone lanterns brought back from Kahn’s Far East travels, cross a koi pond on a wooden bridge, or explore recreated temples. Kahn’s personal history also finds its way into the landscape. A pine forest inspired by the Vosges Mountains, planted on a steep, rocky part of the estate, mimics the terrain of the Alsace region, Kahn’s birthplace.