Museum Releases Early Color Photos of a Vanished World a Century Ago

Stunning color images recently made available in high resolution by a French museum capture much of the world as it was transformed by technology and geopolitics 100 years ago.

This image of a young Serbian man butchering a sheep in 1913 in Krusevac, in central Serbia, is one of tens of thousands of historic color photos recently made available in high resolution by France’s Albert Kahn Museum.

Three women in Openica, in what is now North Macedonia, in 1913.

The museum, in the west of Paris, reopened in April after a years-long architectural renovation during which they also transformed their digital portal.

A Senegalese sniper without his weapon in Fez, Morocco, in 1913.

Some 72,000 high-resolution photos from a project called the Archives of the Planet have been made available for download by the museum.

A Catholic shepherd boy in southern Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1912.

The images had been possible to view previously but only in low quality through a difficult-to-navigate website.

Budapest’s City Parish Church in 1913. In the background are the arches of the Elizabeth Bridge, which was destroyed during World War II. Today, a simplified suspension bridge spans the Danube at the same point.

The Archives of the Planet project was launched in 1909 by French banker Albert Kahn soon after autochrome, the first viable color film technology, became commercially available.

Seed sellers on the rough cobblestones of a street in Pristina, in today’s Kosovo, in 1913.

Kahn was a French banking titan who funneled much of his fortune into philanthropic projects.

Two dancers in Seville, Spain, in 1914.

With his massively ambitious photography project, Kahn sought to document the world as it was being transformed by globalization.

A Serbian man with his son in Konjic, Bosnia-Herzegovina, in 1912.

In some cases, Kahn’s photographers were making the first-ever color photos of the countries they were working in.

A man poses next to his village’s communal oven in Openica, in what is now North Macedonia, in 1913.

Jean Brunhes, who was Kahn’s director for the project, summarized the Archives of the Planet as “using the instruments which have just been born, to capture and preserve the facts of the planet that are about to die.”

A Catholic woman in Sarajevo shows off her tattoos in 1912. The Balkan Catholic practice of traditional tattoos on women was effectively ended under communism in Yugoslavia following World War II.

A dozen of France’s best photographers were tasked by Kahn to travel the world in order to “preserve once and for all certain aspects, practices, and modes of human activity whose fatal disappearance is only a matter of time,” the banker explained.

Horses graze on the hills around Openica, in what is now North Macedonia, in 1913.

A spokesperson for the Albert Kahn Museum says the revamped online archive will “allow the discovery of a wide selection of works.”

A man in traditional clothing in Kestri, Greece, in 1912. The photographer noted the man was “at least 1.8 meters” tall.

The museum spokesperson added that the “reuse of images will be widely encouraged thanks to the online availability of a large part of the collections under a Creative Commons license.”

A guard at the Soviet Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, on December 30, 1922, the day of the establishment of the Soviet Union.

The autochrome color film technology used by Kahn’s photographers was first introduced in France in 1907 and immediately caused a sensation.

A leather tanner pauses his work to pose on a riverbank in Skopje, in what is now North Macedonia, in 1913.

One commentator noted in 1908 that the autochrome technique replicated “the colors of nature in a most startlingly truthful way.”

A family in Paris in 1914.

Autochrome film used millions of “pixels” of dyed grains of potato starch pressed into emulsion to create color photos.

Armed men apparently guarding an Armenian pharmacy in Adana, in today’s eastern Turkey, in 1919. The original caption reads: “Syria, Adana, Armenian Pharmacy.”

The pastel-shaded, slightly speckled images that autochrome produced were described as being “the color of dreams.”

A lemonade seller in Belgrade in the winter of 1913.

The original caption on the photo above notes that the two lemonade containers were painted in the vivid blue, red, and white of the Serbian flag, which indicates the colors of the autochrome photographs are significantly muted when compared with reality.

An Armenian man poses in Djulfa, in today’s Azerbaijan, in 1927.

Autochrome photographic plates were easy to use but expensive to buy and difficult to exhibit.

Iran’s Naderi Throne is seen in the Golestan Palace in Tehran in 1927. The jewel-encrusted throne is around 300 years old and was last used during the coronation of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1967. It is currently in storage.

The main disadvantage of the autochrome technology, users said, was its low sensitivity to light, which necessitated long exposures.

A “wandering ascetic,” with his body coated in ash, and a companion in Lahore in today’s Pakistan in 1914.

Exposure times for autochrome photos even on bright days stretched into seconds, meaning bustling street scenes were impossible to capture adequately and portraits needed to be strictly posed.

A Bulgarian girl in Vladaya, Bulgaria, in 1918.

In total, the photographers commissioned by Kahn traveled to more than 50 countries and captured not only the color photos but around 100 hours of black-and-white film footage as well.

Engineer H. Sassey, whose nationality is not specified, at the entrance to his tent during a surveying mission for the Afghanistan Railways Survey in 1928. Early 20th-century attempts to establish major rail connections across Afghanistan were abandoned, largely due to civil unrest.

Film footage was used by Kahn’s photographers to capture the candid daily life that the color photographs were unable to freeze into a clear photo.

The stainless steel Soviet Worker And Kolkhoz Woman statue looms above the Seine in Paris. The monument was the showpiece of the U.S.S.R.’s pavilion during the World’s Fair in Paris in 1937.

Kahn was forced to end the photographic project soon after the Great Depression shattered the world’s financial markets.

An aerial view shows the Worker And Kolkhoz Woman monument on the left, facing the Imperial Eagle atop Nazi Germany’s pavilion on the right. Four years after this 1937 photo was taken, Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union.

Kahn went bankrupt in 1932. He died in 1940, soon after Nazi forces occupied France.

The visual record he and his photographers left behind have been called some of the most important color images ever made.

About the author: Amos Chapple is a Kiwi who photographs and writes for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. He has been published in most major news titles around the world. You can find more of his work on his website. This article was also published on RFE/RL.

Image credits: All photographs courtesy Musée Albert-Kahn.