During a visit to the library recently, I came across a book called “The Wonderful World of Albert Kahn”. Tempted by the cover to have a look inside, I found a collection of about four hundred colour photographs – many of them dating from before 1920.
Albert Kahn’s story blew me away. According to the blurb of the book: “Kahn used his vast fortune to send a group of intrepid photographers to more than fifty countries around the world, often at crucial junctures in their history, when age-old cultures were on the brink of being changed for ever by war and the march of twentieth century globalisation.”
Nobody really knew about Kahn’s collection – numbering more than 72,000 autochromes – until quite recently. Now, thanks to the dusty compilers at the BBC, we’re finally giving some colour to what we have tended to imagine as an utterly foreign, black-and-white age.
Mongolia, 20 July 1913
When the Chinese Qing Dynasty collapsed in 1911, their former subjects in Mongolia quickly declared independence. This was challenged by the newborn Republic of China, however, whose forces eventually managed to reconquer the country while the other regional powerhouse, Russia, was distracted with its revolution. But China’s tenure was brief: a renegade anti-Communist army from Russia soon seized control of the country.
This photograph was taken a mere two years after Mongolian independence, and six years before the Chinese and Russian invasions. I can only wonder what might have happened to this wolf- and fox-hunter, who seems to have lived somewhere near the border with Russia.
Kurdish Girls Carrying Water Jars
Zakho, Iraq, 11 May 1917
Victim of Ethnic Cleansing
Mount Athos, Greece, 10 September 1913
The Balkan Peninsula, at the eastern edge of civilised Europe, remains one of the most volatile parts of the world, having seen multiple genocides in the past twenty years. A good book to read is the travelogue “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon”, by Rebecca West.
Algerian Family Preparing Couscous
Biskra, Algeria, 1909-11
Girls Eating Betel Nuts
Vietnam, c. 1921
This does nothing to diminish the human value of this photo, however, which – unlike many photos from the time – captures an informal, quiet, and rather beautiful moment, experienced by these two village girls so many years ago.
Lunch During Wartime
Reims, France, 1 April 1917
This messenger, during a moment of respite, is enjoying a hunk of bread and a pot of tea. Well-deserved, I say.
Children Playing Skittles
Reims, France, 1917
Boulogne-Billancourt, France, June 1921
He also fancied himself as a mystic philosopher, and certainly looked the part. The esteemed Western philosopher Bertrand Russell, however, was unimpressed: “Here I am back from Tagore’s lecture,” he wrote in his diary, “after walking most of the way home. It was unmitigated rubbish: cut-and-dried conventional stuff about the river becoming one with the Ocean and man becoming one with Brahma. The man is sincere and in earnest but merely rattling old dry bones. I spoke to him before the lecture, but afterwards I avoided him.”
The Square of the Dead
Marrakesh, Morocco, 18 June 1926
Moreuil, France, 30 July 1916
Verona, Italy, 16 May 1918
A Young Soldier’s Corpse
Aisne, France, post-war
– Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now, for them; no prayers, nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning, save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers, the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk, a drawing-down of blinds.
A Soldier Buying Lunch from a Butcher
Reims, France, 6 March 1917
Note the flimsy attempt at a barricade on the left-hand window: as has been said above, this city suffered a great deal from German bombardment. It is remarkable that ordinary life seems to have ticked along in Reims, throughout wartime. A marked difference, perhaps, from the flexible front-lines of World War Two.
A Young Girl and Her Doll
Reims, France, 1917
Sadhus in British India
Bombay, India, 17 December 1913
Bombay, or Mumbai as it has been called since Hindu nationalists forced a name-change, incidentally remains an incredible destination for travel today. Slumdog Millionaire is one facet of the enormous city: but it also features an engrossing hodge-podge of history, culture, food, entertainment (especially film), and people as diverse as you can imagine – the sadhus, in particular, haven’t changed.
Ourga, Mongolia, 25 July 1913