The Archive Of A Vanishing World

Albert Kahn sought to preserve a world he perceived to be disappearing. A century later, his “Archives de la Planète” connects disparate lands, dying ecosystems and cultures, and a world being utterly transformed by modernity.

Chamonix, France. 1921. (Frédéric Gadmer; courtesy Musée Albert-Kahn)

Grace Linden is an art historian and writer based in London.

PARIS — Line 10 of the Paris Métro terminates almost five miles west of the center of the city at Boulogne-Pont de Saint-Cloud. The station is a polished hub in one of the wealthiest regions of Paris, not to mention all of France. Boulogne-Billancourt is the birthplace of France’s aviation industry and the site of the historic Chateau Rothschild. It is also home to the Musée Albert-Kahn, an archive of the planet.

It is a madcap, romantic thing to try to document the entire Earth, an undertaking so ambitious and so hopeful it must be delusional. And yet, faced with the crisis of a rapidly changing world at the start of the 20th century, that is precisely what Albert Kahn sought to do. Between 1909 and 1931, he dispatched a team to distant lands to record the world in photography and film exactly as it was: its people, landforms and ways of life. For Kahn, it was primarily an effort to understand and produce images of human complexity as a means of promoting international solidarity and peace. He was forced to stop only after the Great Depression decimated his fortune. 

Kahn’s team surveyed the world for more than 20 years, bringing back to France 4,000 black-and-white photographs, 120 hours of video footage and more than 72,000 autochromes, an early color photography process. Together, this material was to form the Archives de la Planète, the crux of Kahn’s lifelong humanist endeavor.

Kahn established his archive as a means of “fix[ing] once and for all, those aspects, practices and modes of human activity, the fatal disappearance of which [was] only a matter of time.” He worried about the effects of industrialization and the loss of diversity it foretold, both cultural and environmental — a loss, as such, of history. This fear was reinforced by the onset of World War I, which began three years after Kahn unveiled his plan to create the archive. But knowledge of foreign cultures and different ways of living would, Kahn thought, encourage respect and cooperation between peoples, and his team persevered despite a backdrop of warfare and ruin. 

“Kahn’s project was primarily an effort to understand and produce images of human complexity as a means of promoting international solidarity and peace.”

Unlike more conventional archives, which are usually established post-hoc in response to a specific moment or event, the nature of Kahn’s project was defined by its materials. He believed strongly in the transformative potential of travel, and he put his faith in photography; like many of his contemporaries, including Walter Benjamin, he thought the new medium might herald a revolution. 

Perhaps most significantly, Kahn recognized early that an acceleration of disappearance would occur in the era in which he lived. New roads and railways meant more travel and more people moving about, which enabled Kahn and his team to journey more easily but also advanced the degradation that he so feared. Likewise, photography and new communication technologies encouraged more travelers, and not just those embarking upon their Grand Tour. The outbreak of war in Europe only furthered Kahn’s concerns. 

Kahn set out to preserve the world as it was, but he ended up registering the very developments that he so worried would destroy what he sought to immortalize. Against a destabilized backdrop, the Archives de la Planète portends political destabilization, environmental destruction, the mass movement of peoples and the precipitous decline of cultures. 

New York, United States. 1908. (Albert Dutertre; courtesy Musée Albert-Kahn)
Bordeaux, France. 1930. (Fernand Cuville; courtesy Musée Albert-Kahn)
Giza, Egypt. 1914. (Auguste Léon; courtesy Musée Albert-Kahn)

Albert Kahn was born Abraham Kahn on March 3, 1860, to a Jewish livestock merchant in Marmoutier, an Alsatian town in northeastern France near the border with Germany. As a boy, Kahn witnessed the Prussians defeat the French in 1871 and subsequently annex Alsace-Lorraine. In a little over six months, he went from living in France to living in Prussia, a geographic whiplash that left a mark. Families like Kahn’s were faced with the choice of whether to be German or immigrate to France; Kahn chose to leave for Paris. Once there, he Christianized his name and transformed himself into Albert. 

In Paris, Kahn proved himself a gifted financier, speculating heavily in the mining business. He rose quickly at Goudchaux Bank, becoming a joint owner in 1892 at the age of 32, and went on to establish his own merchant bank six years later. His life was filled with travel — to Egypt, Japan, Venezuela, Russia, South Africa, Vietnam — and learning; the philosopher Henri Bergson became a lifelong mentor. But Kahn was also a millionaire ill at ease with his own financial success. A permanent bachelor with little desire for publicity, he sought a useful way to spend his fortune, endeavoring to make himself into a philosopher-banker, a philanthropist, a citizen of the world. 

One of his first ventures was botanical: He purchased in 1895 a large tract of land in Boulogne where he hoped to grow a diverse garden. He filled it with flora representing the Middle East, the Mediterranean and Europe, a botanical voyage across the globe. He also funded numerous academic posts, laboratories and a travel scholarship for young researchers whose work would open transcultural relationships and dialogue, and he hosted a weekly intellectual salon that was visited by such guests as Marie Curie, Louis Lumière and H. G. Wells. 

The machinery of photography at this time was becoming much more portable, making it accessible to archaeologists, explorers, the brave and the curious. It was seen not as an art form but as an objective truth-teller, a method of scientific inquiry, and was used to facilitate new ways of seeing and evidencing the world. Living and nonliving subjects were posed in front of cameras to become specimens awaiting categorization. The desire to record and classify was widespread, with photographers documenting everything from Yosemite’s peaks and the pyramids at Giza to disease, warfare and the human body. 

Adjohoun, present-day Benin. 1930. (Frédéric Gadmer; courtesy Musée Albert-Kahn)
Aswan, Egypt. 1914. (Auguste Léon; courtesy Musée Albert-Kahn)
Jotunheim, Norway. 1914. (Auguste Léon; courtesy Musée Albert-Kahn)
Cairo, Egypt. 1914. (Auguste Léon; courtesy Musée Albert-Kahn)

Early color photographic processes such as the Autochrome Lumière further animated such imagery. Patented by brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière in 1903, it was not the first form of color photography but more straightforward than previous efforts. Streamlined operations made the technology accessible to amateur photographers, though it was still more expensive and unwieldy than black-and-white processes. 

Autochromes required long exposure times, so the subject needed to be absolutely still for a few seconds to a few minutes, depending on the levels of light. Blurred images were common and resembled contemporaneous Impressionist oil paintings, which also tried to accurately depict the effects of light. Storing the glass plates was a challenge — they were heavy, fragile and degraded quickly. And like a Polaroid or daguerreotype, the plate itself was the photograph, which meant that if you were unlucky enough to smash or damage one, nothing could be done to save it. (Kahn’s existential fears, it seems, were worked into his choice of medium.) 

Because an autochrome is shot on glass, it can only be viewed using transmitted light. The act of viewing, then, was itself a production, a spectacle. The explorer-photographer Jules Gervais-Courtellemont showed his images of the Middle East publicly in Lyon and at the Salle Charras in Paris. His lantern projections offered a glimpse of an exotic world to many who were unable to travel outside of France. Kahn attended Gervais-Courtellemont’s talks, and several of his autochromes served as the first recorded material in his archive.

When viewed with the aid of a lightbulb, an autochrome is gorgeous, a word we art historians hesitate to use in relation to art. But really there is no other way of describing the sun-drenched lapis lazulis, saturated scarlets, a sunflower incarnated in yellow. In Auguste Léon’s 1914 portrait of an Egyptian man selling cooked maize, a man’s blue robes are a beacon against a brown ground. The kernels themselves are luminous. Léon’s earlier shot of a small street in the Bosnian village Jajce is similarly otherworldly: In a sepia land, a single swath of ochre burns brightly. Even the errors can be bewitching. An absinthe green fills the sky of Stéphane Passet’s photograph of the Summer Palace in Beijing. It is the aurora borealis, a hypnotic impossibility — an exposure problem, but color at its most potent. 

No matter how fantastical they may be, the autochromes’ colors seem more real than the world. They offer the sensation of color more than color itself. 

Cairo, Egypt. 1914. (Auguste Léon; courtesy Musée Albert-Kahn)
Jajce, Bosnia. 1912. (Auguste Léon; courtesy Musée Albert-Kahn)
Beijing, China. 1912. (Stéphane Passet; courtesy Musée Albert-Kahn)

The Musée Albert-Kahn and its grounds underwent an extensive renovation and expansion starting nearly a decade ago. It finally reopened to the public earlier this year and now functions as both an exhibition space and a research center. Its inaugural exhibition “Around the World” looked at representations of travel and travelers in relation to the history of photography and film, Kahn’s twin mediums. On the first floor, visitors can summon on screens any image in Kahn’s collection. Generally, the tone is one of arbitrary yet efficient discovery. Chance is of paramount importance as visitors trawl through an apparently infinite number of images. 

That the archive is a tricky beast to organize presents problems with both its physical structure and ultimate aims. It is undeniably difficult to periodize one’s own time. Although an archive is like a memory, it is not an embodied one. These databases and rooms instead hold trace elements, the remains of what once was. 

Choice governs how an archive is constructed, classified, ordered and displayed. Those decisions necessarily reveal an agenda, even if an archive may seem broad to the point of being indiscriminate. Kahn and his team of course were Europeans, and they journeyed to distant lands and unfamiliar cultures to take photographs of what they determined to be important — and ignored what they felt wasn’t.

Kahn’s intention to build an archive to preserve the planet has echoes today. Some artists use the archive as a method to perceive humanity’s ecological impacts. Just as in Kahn’s day, precisely what will be lost is not yet known, though devastation has already begun. Some, therefore, strive to preserve what they can, while they can. 

Such gestures are hopeful because they suggest that people will still be around in years to come to view an archive of what once was, and depressing because they acknowledge an impending and substantial loss. Jacques Derrida warned of the archive’s future-looking thrust: It both guards the past and serves as “a pledge, and like every pledge, a token of the future.” The question always is whose vision of the past and present is being saved, and what story to tell to those yet to come. 

“Not everything is worth protecting, these projects seem to say, but in the crush of what has been accumulated are fascinating and terrifying objects and ideas.”

Perhaps Kahn’s most literal successor is the artist Amy Balkin, who developed a project called “A People’s Archive of Sinking and Melting” that presents an ever-expanding collection of items from places that may disappear as a result of climate change. A decade into her project, Balkin has assembled contributions from around the world: Panama, Peru, Nepal, Cape Verde and beyond. Donations can be “natural, manufactured, found, made or discarded,” she writes on the project’s website; the sole requirement is that each weighs less than 8 ounces. Much of what she has received provides a valuable record of fluctuating change. Faced with the ongoing nature of global warming, as Paula Amad, a professor at the University of Iowa, wrote of Kahn’s collection, her project exists in a pre-hoc state: “Its documents were born in, rather than retired to, [the] archive.”

In many ways, the objects are banal: Chesapeake Bay oyster shells, a paper boat from Cuba discovered after a flood, a plastic fork and knife from New Orleans. Kahn’s photographs too manifest the everyday: cityscapes and doorways and gathering children. There are monuments and monumentality (the ruin wrought by World War I, for example) but in general the Archives de la Planète privileges small narratives. 

This everydayness illuminates the profound beauty of life, which is perhaps why an archive can be so distressing and poignant. The loss contained within is both inexpressible and entirely recognizable. By virtue of their placement in an archive, the objects in Balkin’s collection become nostalgic, souvenirs of a now-lost place; similarly, Kahn’s autochromes, with their soft, diffuse light, suggest a faraway time. They are what photography historian John Wood calls “our visual madeleine,” each presenting a portal to a world that never truly existed. They both embody nostalgia and were already highly nostalgic when first sought out. 

All archival material reveals fleeting moments in time. Roland Barthes famously described the photograph as a “thing that has been there,” but he could have been talking about anything that has been saved.

But more than simply recordings of a moment, archived objects move beyond their historical containers to chart how such things were once interpreted — and how such interpretations have changed. Archival imagery can be viewed concurrently: In the Archives de la Planète, for example, you can look at World War I soldiers next to Aleppo’s Bedouin weavers. No object exists unto itself; the archive instead invites communion, cross-pollination, new narratives and connections across topography and memory. Visitors to the Musée Albert-Kahn find themselves entangled in multiple temporalities. The past, in the heterotopic space of the museum, is never really past — it is meant to exist both within and outside of time. 

Amy Balkin et al., “A People’s Archive of Sinking and Melting,” Antarctica collection. 2012-ongoing. Contributed by Micaela Neus with Bill Burns, Nandor Kovats, Caroline Lipke and Steve Sweet. (Mary Lou Saxon; courtesy the archive)
Amy Balkin, et al., “A People’s Archive of Sinking and Melting,” New Orleans collection. 2012-ongoing. Contributed by Pleasur’ne Thomas, Monique Dean, Tyjunaique McKenzie, Wynell Davis, LaShine Dickerson and Milissa Orzolek. (Fredrik Nilsen; courtesy the archive)
Amy Balkin et al., “A People’s Archive of Sinking and Melting.” 2012-ongoing. Contributed by Yoanis Gil. (Image courtesy the archive)

The artist and filmmaker John Akomfrah investigates aesthetics, temporality, race and memory, and how history is so often nonlinear. In the broadest sense, Akomfrah is fascinated by what images can do as self-determining entities; his films create ahistorical juxtapositions that reveal “affective proximit[ies].” 

Grappling with ideas around diaspora and ecology, Akomfrah’s “Vertigo Sea” (2015) and “Purple” (2017) address humanity’s relationship with the Earth. “Vertigo Sea” references Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “sublime seas,” tying together the whaling industry with migrants crossing the ocean in search of better lives. On paper, these are distinct subjects, linked solely by their aqueous environs, but the filmic montage teases out a relationship between mankind and the ocean: one of cruelty, violence and awe.

“Purple” too weaves together archival material with new footage to cast an eye toward the Anthropocene. An immersive experience spread over six screens, the film stages figures across disparate lands, pairing them with nuclear reactors, telephone poles, a graveyard, waterlogged photographs, an eyeball, a snowy landscape — in short, the very basic elements of human life. 

What Akomfrah’s films share with the Archives de la Planète is an absence of hierarchy. Akomfrah gives equal priority to whalers and migrants, pregnancy and dance. His work embraces idiosyncrasy as a mode of representation, and this meandering allows for connections hitherto unseen. Ultimately, Akomfrah is interested in creating what he has called “a system of mourning”; Kahn probably felt the same pull. Akomfrah is attentive to “what images can do independent of the function to which they are supposedly put.” An archive, his work claims, is hardly ever stable and certainly not fixed; there is time still to let the images reorient themselves. 

A still from John Akomfrah’s “Vertigo Sea.” 2015. (Courtesy Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery)
Stills from John Akomfrah’s “Purple.” 2017. (Courtesy Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery)

By attempting to capture the entire Earth in images, Kahn’s archive endeavored to extend humanity’s (or at least European, and especially French) control over the world. However quixotic, he still operated within the context of French imperialism, and his projects reinforced France’s sense of its own cosmopolitanism in the age of empire. As much as he may have sought a visual utopia, Kahn was a man of his age. 

In the decades since his death in 1940, efforts to visually produce the planet have only accelerated: Google Maps charts practically every road and riverbank, government surveillance cameras record faces and poses. We now have autonomous drones capable of scanning and recording things happening on the ground from high in the sky, digital video channels featuring uncountable bytes of user-submitted content and domestic devices that record video and audio in their surroundings. It is in some ways a seemingly limitless archive of life on Earth. 

Optimistically and naively, Kahn hoped his images would be operational — and grounded in science. He approached Jean Brunhes, a professor of human geography at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, with an invitation to direct the archive. Brunhes had made photography a key tool in his research, and Kahn understood the necessity of marrying image to logic, of bestowing an aura of fact and truth on his images to ensure they served as more than just aesthetic objects. 

Kahn was also preoccupied with the number of images his team could gather, rather than the power of any single one. Likewise, two recent artistic projects have dealt with the idea of accumulation in ways that contend with humanity’s effects on the planet. Camille Henrot’s “Grosse Fatigue” (2013), made during a residency at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, is a 13-minute video collage that explores the seemingly endless space of the internet as, essentially, the evolution of life on Earth. 

The backdrop of the video is a computer desktop, against which popup windows open, close and interact with one another. It is, according to Henrot, “an experience of density itself,” and the weighty ways in which humanity has infringed upon the planet. She is interested in anthropological guilt and what happens when science as a discipline intervenes with nature, two perspectives “Grosse Fatigue” explores. The speed of the video, an artificial pace, can make even the most innocuous of images — waves lapping a beach, hands pushing marbles, a fish skeleton — feel like a deluge.

Similarly, Sarah Sze’s “Timekeeper” (2016) investigates how we navigate large amounts of information and the increasing overlap of the virtual and the material. In large, beguiling installations, she renders strange the detritus of the everyday — toothpicks, plastic bottles, lightbulbs, measuring tape. “Timekeeper” looks like a colossal, fantastical orrery; it was inspired by the scientific tools long used to map the cosmos. 

Sze explained that the work “reflects on our return to a filmic way of seeing images, in succession, in multiples, at random, scrolling through them over time.” She could easily have been talking about “Grosse Fatigue” or the Archives de la Planète: They all express the passing of planetary time by experience and informational overload. They are overwhelming but also magical, immense. Hiding within are propositions. Not everything is worth protecting, these projects seem to say, but in the crush of what has been accumulated are fascinating and terrifying objects and ideas. 

Sarah Sze, “Timekeeper.” 2016. Mixed media including mirrors, wood, stainless steel, archival pigment prints, video projectors, lamps, desks, stools and stone. (© Sarah Sze; courtesy the artist and Gagosian)

I visited the Musée Albert-Kahn in June on one of the first hot days of what would prove to be a very hot summer. Bijoux autochromes are arrayed on the first-floor walls: 5-by-7-inch plates, backlit and enchanting, revealing in grainy, lambent color an aching sublime. As astral visions, the autochromes attest to the wonder of being alive. They do not, however, offer solutions to our present problems. 

Art represents and reflects the world but is typically not itself a resolution. Certainly, the art world, with its biennials and galas, contributes to the Earth’s destruction even as it champions a greener future. But when artists like Akomfrah, Sze, Henrot and Balkin root their work in the material rather than the theoretical, they offer a useful vocabulary for our current catastrophic moment. Like Kahn, who hoped his archive could inspire empathy, these artists conceive of new ways of understanding our place in the world. 

Archives, as Derrida suggested, imply a melancholia, even or perhaps especially when incomplete. Try as he might, Kahn failed to picture the whole world. There are no photographs of Central America, nothing of Australia or the Pacific Islands; the totality of Africa is summed up in just a handful of countries. 

But what the Archives de la Planète makes clear is how much is at stake for us today. It preserves in great antique beauty much of what was then crumbling and vanishing. Kahn was not the first to agonize about the future amid such loss, but he was driven by the destruction he felt and saw around him. A century later, we are deeper into that process than Kahn could have imagined. 

Philae, Egypt. 1914. (Auguste Léon; courtesy Musée Albert-Kahn)
Ypres, Belgium. 1922. (Frédéric Gadmer; courtesy Musée Albert-Kahn)