The Dawn of the Color Photograph: Albert Kahn's Catalog of Humanity

How an early-20th-century French banker shaped your Instagram photos

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In 1909, millionaire French banker and philanthropist Albert Kahn decided to enlist the era's burgeoning photographic technology in a mission far greater than aesthetic fetishism, and set out to use the new autochrome—the world's first true color photographic process, invented by the Lumière brothers in 1903 and marketed in 1907—to produce a color photographic record of human life on Earth as a way of promoting peace and fostering cross-cultural understanding. For Kahn, photography was a way of cataloging the human "tribes" of the world and constructing a vibrant, colorful quilt of our shared humanity.

MORBIDAS.jpg Over the next two decades, until he was ruined by The Great Depression, Kahn dispatched a crew of photographers to more than 50 countries around the world, shooting more than 100 hours of film footage and 72,000 images in what became the most important and influential collection of early color photographs of all time. Yet, for decades, the collection—which spanned everything from religious rituals to cultural customs to watershed political events—remained virtually unknown, until it was rediscovered in the 1980s.

In The Dawn of the Color Photograph: Albert Kahn's Archives of the Planet, BBC tells the story of Kahn's ambitious project and its monumental legacy, exploring how his collection and vision came to shape everything from the visual vocabulary of photojournalism to your favorite Instagram filters.

albertkahn1EXP_edited-1.jpg Marne, France



albertkahn2.jpg Paris, France



albertkahn3.jpg Finistère, France



albertkahn4.jpg Norway



albertkahn5.jpg Sweden



albertkahn6.jpg Greece



albertkahn7.jpg Macedonia



albertkahn8.jpg Switzerland



albertkahn9.jpg Turkey



albertkahn10.jpg Serbia



albertkahn11.jpg Greece



albertkahn12.jpg Montenegro



albertkahn13.jpg India



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albertkahn16.jpg Mongolia



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albertkahn18.jpg India



albertkahn19.jpg Vietnam



albertkahn20.jpg Syria



albertkahn21.jpg Djibouti



albertkahn22.jpg Republic of Benin (formerly Dahomey)



albertkahn23.jpg Vietnam


This excerpt from the BBC program on Kahn, on which The Dawn of the Color Photograph is based, takes a fascinating look at how Kahn's photographs helped frame the Balkans—my homeland—as the layered, multifaceted set of cultures they were, rather than the lump-sum caricature the world had seen them as after the fall of the Ottoman Empire:



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This post appears courtesy of Brain Pickings, an Atlantic partner site.

Image credits: Princeton University Press

Presented by

Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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