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It’s a Small World

Albert Kahn’s 100-year-old photography project brought humanity into focus

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A century ago, many Jews dreamed of a utopian world of universal brotherhood. Those dreams haven’t aged very well. Rosa Luxemburg’s claim that she felt “at home in the entire world wherever there are clouds and birds and human tears,” can make even a sympathetic listener roll his eyes. Ludwig Zamenhof’s universal language, Esperanto, seems like the daydream of a Sholom Aleichem luftmensch. And Leon Trotsky’s call for the Jews to assimilate into the socialist state that would eventually murder him is enough to condemn forever what Hyam Maccoby termed the “tragic purity” of Jewish internationalism. But Albert Kahn’s 20-year quest to demonstrate the common humanity of all peoples spurned any particular agenda or ideology, and even avoided words. Now housed at the Albert Kahn Museum in Paris, the French-Jewish banker’s photographic Archives of the Planet remains an alluring and visually stunning world treasure.

Albert Kahn
The normally camera-shy Albert Kahn outside his office in the rue de Richelieu in Paris in 1914, on the only occasion he agreed to pose formally for the camera.

Inspired by a breakthrough in photographic technology, Kahn was determined to document humankind using autochromes—vividly colored photographs made with a transparent film of dyed potato starch. Beginning in 1909, he spent his enormous fortune on a small army of photographers dispatched to 50 countries across every continent. Over the next 22 years, until 1931, he created one of the largest photographic collections in the world: 72,000 autochromes that document the everyday life of ordinary people from Ireland to Iran, Montenegro to Mongolia, and Vancouver to Vietnam. To celebrate a century of the little-known collection, Princeton University Press has issued an impressive new monograph, The Dawn of the Color Photograph: Albert Kahn’s Archives of the Planet.

The photographs depict a world we have only known in black and white. Kahn’s images present that world rich with the colors of life, and the autochrome’s uniquely vibrant, warm, and evocative hues deliver an emotional charge. They bridge the century that has passed and erase the sense that these people from an earlier time were somehow not like us. Perhaps this special color, long celebrated by connoisseurs of the autochrome, is what inspired Kahn to spend and spend until he was bankrupt, to spend even after the stock market crash of 1929, when most of his wealth evaporated and it was clear he could no longer afford to indulge this extraordinary passion. The autochromes depict their human subjects with a tender sympathy that is a perfect partner to Kahn’s own devotion to his fellow man. “I work for humanity,” he wrote in 1908. “I serve the human race.”

In a 1914 photograph from Paris, a young woman, part of a family posing outside their home, leans forward in her chair and fixes the viewer with an attractive face animated by intelligence and curiosity. In another image, two boys in Spain—arms draped around each other’s shoulders—strike the jaunty attitude familiar to best friends everywhere. Some photographs overwhelm us with their exoticism: the elaborate costumes worn by Serbian women in Macedonia obscure individuality under white kerchiefs, long white skirts covered by heavy red aprons, red jackets embroidered with gold thread, and necklaces of large gold coins. Such detailed documentation is part of what Kahn was after. He wrote that he wanted to “fix in the memory once and for all the different aspects of human activity, the customs and practices, the inevitable disappearance of which is only a question of time.” Recognizable human faces help ground these distinctive customs. In one photograph, a young man is dressed with simple formality in white pants, shirt, and hat, all trimmed in blue. He stares at the viewer with defiance and suspicion, unafraid but sullen. It is Hanoi, Vietnam, 1915, and the young man and his fellows pull the rickshaws of funeral mourners. Their world is now history, but the young man’s expression is timeless.

The new book is the first widely available collection to reproduce Kahn’s photographs from every region of the world. While earlier volumes were published with the cooperation of individual countries, those books tended to reproduce images that abetted nationalism (an irony that would not have amused the internationalist Kahn). But the new volume is perhaps too true to Kahn’s ideals. In favoring the universal over the particular, it largely overlooks the role played by Kahn’s Jewish origins, and the Jewish historical moment he so clearly typifies.

The special attraction universalism exerted on Jews has been on the academic radar for decades. “Everywhere, Jews played a leading role in universalist political movements, liberal, socialist, and, later on, communist too,” noted historian Michael Walzer in 2001. And it’s been almost 40 years since the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, in an article about Karl Marx and Benjamin Disraeli, shrewdly observed that politically emancipated Jews “longed to identify with the majority” because they desired a more profound emancipation, a “liberation from their anomalous, and often inferior, social status.” That analysis sums up Kahn’s life.

He was born Abraham Kahn on March 3, 1860 in the Alsace region of France. His father was a well-to-do cattle merchant who sent the boy to a Jewish primary school, then to a local gymnasium, and at age 16 to Paris. The last was a popular move among Alsatian Jews who, after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, found themselves living under German rule. Secular republican France and the opportunities available in Paris attracted many. Kahn lived at the Pension Springer, a boarding house for Jewish students, earned his baccalaureat, and joined the Jewish banking firm of Goudchaux. But despite his close association with the Jewish community, Kahn changed his name to Albert and took steps to distance himself.

He had good reason. Just as Kahn began making his fortune in banking, French anti-Semitism was gaining strength. The fame and wealth of the Rothschild family made it easy to associate French Jews with banking, and in 1882 and 1892 financial crises were blamed on Jewish bankers. Kahn, who had already begun what would be a lifetime correspondence with the French-Jewish philosopher Henri Bergson, refused to acknowledge these events. Their letters never mentioned the growing anti-Semitism, and the two friends maintained this silence even during the infamous Dreyfus Affair of 1897–99. But Kahn did respond to the Dreyfus Affair in his own singular way—in 1898 he founded the Scholarship for World Travel, which funded academic study abroad to foster international understanding and friendship. Thus, Kahn the universalist was born. He escaped the burdens of being in the Jewish minority by joining the greatest majority of all: humanity.

Though Kahn did not take any of the photographs himself, and assigned the selection of photographers to the project’s director, the Archives of the Planet was the product of his individual vision. And Kahn’s choice of photography as the medium for his greatest project is as fascinating as his universalism. Scholars and practitioners wonder at Jews’ extraordinary participation and achievement in photography, represented by the photographers Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Diane Arbus, and Richard Avedon, to name just a few. In January 2003, photographer William Meyers wrote in Commentary that photography operated as a branch of leftist politics, which gave Jewish photographers “a way of seeing.” For Jews eager to escape what they considered a parochial background, this political vision allowed them to focus on the world’s (non-Jewish) poor and dispossessed. In her 2004 article about Lotte Jacobi, University of Wisconsin professor Lisa Silverman suggests that Jews valued photography for its ability to portray them as acceptable German types. Art historian and photographer Max Kozloff was co-curator of a 2002 photography exhibition at New York’s Jewish Museum, and in the exhibit’s accompanying book he claimed that Jewish photographers produce intrinsically Jewish photographs, that there is a “Jewish eye.” Meanwhile, in a 2000 article for Photo Review, author and scholar A.D. Coleman wrote that photography attracted Jews because “the camera helps conscience shoulder the burden of memory.” And who has a greater burden of memory than the Jews?

But there is yet another aspect of photography that enticed so many: it is the ultimate universal language. The medium speaks to everyone, no translation needed; the great German photographer August Sander praised “photography’s universal comprehensibility.” Early on, photography raised hopes that a new age of greater understanding among nations would arise. And it is that quality that attracted Albert Kahn.

For groups often viewed as pariahs, championing universalism could be a form of self-interest. Photography, like Esperanto, socialism, and communism, held a special appeal for Jews because it exemplified an ideal of brotherhood so expansive it might accommodate even them. Most internationalist programs erased individuality in the name of unity. Socialist utopias were bland agglomerations of homogenized workers. But Kahn’s photographic project was different—by its very nature, his Archives of the Planet could not gloss over the differences among the world’s cultures. Instead, it recorded those differences and presented the evidence of a diverse humanity without any theorizing. Its only argument, implicit and powerful, is that all people have a right to exist.

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It’s a Small World

Albert Kahn’s 100-year-old photography project brought humanity into focus

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