Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Dawn of the Color Photograph

The color blue is not particularly startling. We see it every day in the sky, in the clothing we wear, in the ink from our pens. It is shocking, however, to see the cobalt blue of the uniforms worn by the French soldiers in the trenches of World War I. It is equally stunning to view the rich crimson garment worn by a 14-year old in 1913 Ireland or the vibrant saffron in a rug being woven in 1909 Algiers.

These color photos featured in The Dawn of the Color Photograph: Albert Kahn's Archives of the Planet present us with vibrant images of a world that we think of as simply being black and white. Our ideas of color from these years comes from staring at the disturbing early paintings of Picasso or the fanciful works of a young Matisse. To see beautiful color photographs of everyday life from almost every corner of the globe completely changes our perspectives of those times and people.

The process used in these pictures was the autochrome (featuring glass plates and potato starch) which was invented by Auguste and Louis Lumiere in 1907. The Lumieres were also instrumental in developing the motion picture. For the first time in history, the autochrome provided a portable method for taking color photographs. It was very expensive, however, and that's where the French banker Albert Kahn came in.

Kahn's grand vision was that as the world's people got to know each other and to understand each other's cultures, the less likely it was that they would destroy each other in war. With that aim, he started a scholarship program that sent young teachers to the far-flung corners of the world. This was four years before the Rhodes scholarship was founded. Kahn saw the autochrome as a way to further his vision. He wanted to document, in color, all life in the world. His immensely ambitious project had an equally far-reaching name - The Archives of the Planet. Kahn sent professional photographers to the Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa from 1908 to the early 1930s in order to document life in dozens of societies.

His pacifist ideals were obviously not realized--ironically some of the best photos were taken in Europe during World War I--but his photographers took some of the earliest color pictures, creating a unique historical record. In all, they left behind 72,000 autochromes, of which 370 are reproduced in this magnificent book from Princeton University. The commentary provided by David Okuefuna gives us glimpses into the adventures of some of these intrepid men and women that Kahn employed.

The photos have an eerie quality, and the colors, particularly the reds, are at times more brilliant than what we see in contemporary images. The shots are surreal in the sense that we are viewing scenes that should have been lost to history. It's like a strange dream, or a dazzling Hollywood production, when we see a Vietnamese concubine lounging in a beautiful pink robe in a 1915 opium den, or when we view the 1919 World War I victory parade in London with colorful flags fluttering.

Kahn's photographers focused on the mundane, the everyday, commonplace activities of the early 20th century. We see soldiers peeling apples, girls playing with dolls, men smoking pipes, bakers hawking their loaves of bread. The grand historical moments of that time are largely absent, but what is present are people attempting to live out their routine existences in a world of tremendous turmoil. It's impossible to look into these faces and not see ourselves with our petty concerns and our grand dreams on some level. At the same time, we look at their surroundings (horse-drawn carriages, distinct regional clothing and technology that is more 18th century then 20th) and see a world that has disappeared.

One of Kahn's goals was to document the disappearing cultural practices around the world. As a banker who was financing industrialization, he knew that the world was changing in permanent ways. He understood globalization before anyone ever called it that. One of the most striking aspects of the collection are the pictures taken in France's colonial possessions. The photos seem to rejoice in the indigenous cultures of Indochina and North Africa. A Vietnamese theater company in their garish outfits is portrayed, as well as traditional Algerian dancers in two of the more fascinating photos. At the same time the photographers ignore the heavy-handed French colonial presence in both of those regions.

None of this colonial rule is examined in these photos. The Vietnam photos were taken in one of the most tumultuous years of the French rule--a prison was seized in Saigon by rebels and an attempted coup in Hanoi was put down. But the photographer, Leon Busy, a French officer, was more preoccupied by the enchanting women of Indochina and colorful local clothes. In the notes, Okuefuna speculates on why Busy and others ignored France's brutal colonial rule.

"Was it because, as (film historian Paula) Amad suggests, the Archives of the Planet were 'an unofficial ambassador for French colonial policy'? Did Kahn or (Jean) Brunhes order him to refrain from recording anything that might jeopardize the Archive's cordial relationship with the higher circles of the French military? Was Busy prevented from shooting the activities of the French military by the diktat of a senior officer? Was it simply self-censorship, or a matter of taste?"

The lack of newsreel-type images or journalistic shots makes the work all the more powerful in many ways. Life finds a way to continue to go on in the most savage of conditions. Children will play behind the lines in a war-torn French city, Vietnamese men will continue to fish and plant rice under terrible repression. The photos take on a quality of timelessness that seems removed from a particular political regime or event.

This timeless perspective is enhanced by the softer, almost painterly qualities of the prints themselves. When the autochromes are enlarged they become pixillated and we can be fooled into thinking we are looking at remarkable detailed paintings. The contemporary artist Gerhard Richter's ethereal work springs to mind. There is something quite luminous on that border between photography and painting that these pictures inhabit.

It's rare that a book can change your view of the world. Perusing these images from Kahn's Archives of the Planet and reading Okuefuna's brief but informative captions has given me a much greater insight into how people lived nearly 100 years ago. This book is nothing short of a miracle. It's a time machine to the birth of our modern world.

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