The Archive of the Planet was the brainchild of the millionaire French banker and philanthropist Albert Kahn. Between 1908 and 1930, he used his vast personal fortune to generate what is now generally acknowledged to be the most important collection of early colour photographs in the world. At the time Kahn embarked on this project, colour photography was still in its infancy. It was only a year before the Archive was created that the legendary French inventors Auguste and Louis Lumière had marketed the autochrome - the world's first user-friendly photographic system capable of taking true colour pictures.
Almost straight away, Kahn acquired one. It's not difficult to see why Kahn was so beguiled: the autochrome system produces images of mesmerising beauty. As an idealist and an internationalist, Kahn believed that he could use this system to promote peace and greater understanding among the world's cultures. So he spent a fortune to hire photographers and send them to more than 50 countries all over the world. Altogether, they shot more than 72,000 colour pictures (as well as about 100 hours of film footage) recording everything from religious rituals and cultural practices to momentous political events all over the world.
They took the earliest known colour pictures in countries as far apart as Vietnam and Brazil, Mongolia and Norway, Japan and Benin. As pet projects go, this was very ambitious - and vastly expensive. Yet undaunted by the cost, Kahn bankrolled this enterprise for more than 20 years. Kahn's photographers undertook these intrepid expeditions without the global transit systems we take for granted today. Often, they arrived in these countries at crucial junctures in their history. For example, they recorded the collapse of both the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires - and the birth of completely new states in Europe and the Middle East. During World War I, Kahn's photographers observed soldiers as they cooked their meals and laundered their uniforms behind the front lines at The Battle of Verdun. They watched the world's most powerful men when they convened for the post-war negotiations at Versailles.
No doubt Kahn expected to have the financial wherewithal to sustain it indefinitely. But events delivered a hammer-blow to his plans. At the start of 1929, Kahn was still one of the richest men in Europe. But by the end of the year the Wall Street Crash had reduced the financial empire of one of Europe's most successful financiers to rubble.
Yet by then, Kahn had already amassed one of the most important photographic collections in the world. A century after he launched his project, Albert Kahn's dazzling pictures put colour into what we almost always think of as an exclusively monochrome age.
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