The Archives de la Planète

Wanting to build a visual inventory of the transformations during his time, Albert Kahn dedicated his fortune to the creation of a vast documentation project of the world.

As of 1912, he crafted the project to establish, according to his own words: “a kind of photographic inventory of the surface of the globe, occupied and organized by man, such as it presents itself at the beginning of the 20th century.” Consequently, the Archives de la Planète were born, a vast documentary project that today represents the foundation of the collections of The Musée Départemental Albert-Kahn.


A man of his time, conscious of the changes at work in the world, Albert Kahn imagined an overall project: “I would like to put stereoscopic photography, screenings and the cinematograph to work on a large scale in order to capture, once and for all, the aspects, practices and conditions of human activity whose fatal disappearance is no longer only a matter of time.” He used two recent and complementary Lumière brother inventions: the cinematograph (1895) and the autochrome (1907), the first recording movement and the second color.

Albert Kahn hired Jean Brunhes as the scientific director, an instructor of human geography. The latter tried to establish a methodology based on this new discipline: the classified recording of the traces of human activity on the world’s surface, while Kahn gave a more ethnographic inflection to the project. Both were interested in political and social movements as well. As of 1913, the geographer tried to summarize these different approaches, defining the enterprise “as a record of living humanity, at the beginning of the 20th century, at the critical hour of one of the most thorough economic, geographic and historic “transformations” we have ever seen.”


Definitively, the project escapes any strict categorization. Its limit of course lies in its unthinkable exhaustiveness. However, at its beginning, Kahn had no doubt that one day “our entire small planet” – as he wrote – would become “familiar” to his image takers. The expression, which predates our “planetary village,” is both symptomatic of the author’s optimism, his awareness of the standardization taking place and his vision of a “global citizen.”


Color photography and the cinema, recent innovations, were still perceived by Kahn in the luster of their original power, as a genuine remembrance-based “imprint” of reality, a way to conserve “the living albeit gone” and all the “phenomena of general interest.” The Archives de la Planète, as their name indicates, was supposed to allow future generations to learn from the “lessons contained in the candid picture of evolution.”

Techniques used in this reality-capturing project

The autochrome

The first color photography process produced industrially, the autochrome was invented in 1903 by the Lumière brothers and then commercialized in 1907. It was a positive glass process meant to be projected or viewed through an image viewer.

When making an autochrome, a glass plate is covered with a sticky latex-based varnish on which a mixture of tinted (orange, green, purple) grains of potato starch (from 10 to 15 microns) is sprinkled, as well as carbon powder, which fills in the gaps. The whole was laminated with the help of a cylinder press. A waterproof varnish followed by a black-and-white photosensitive emulsion (gelatin-silver bromide) completed the preparation of the plate.

During the shot, the light from the subject is filtered – according to the principle of trichromy – through the tinted starch before exposing the photosensitive layer. Its development in the inversion bath was then followed by retouches. The emulsion is protected by the application of a varnish and doubled with a glass plate. The whole was sealed with a band of black-gummed paper.

Autochromes stopped being made between 1932 and 1933, notably replaced by Filmcolor, a supple medium made out of celluloid.


The films produced for The Archives de la Planète were made with cellulose nitrate, a natural polymer, which is not only flexible so that the film can “spin,” but also resistant enough to support the mechanical recording of the reel inside a camera and projector. It measured 35 mm wide, the professional “standard” still used today. Due to its high flammability and its natural self-deterioration, this medium was replaced with acetate, also known as the “safety” medium, starting in the middle of the 1920s.


The Place de la Concorde in Paris, 25 juillet 1921, (film nitrate 35 mm , Lucien Le Saint, AI120340) © CD92/Musée Albert-Kahn