Rose path, Albert Kahn’s estate, Boulogne-Billancourt, France, 1911. Autochrome 12x9 cm. Photographer: Auguste Léon [©Albert-Kahn museum].

In 1895, Kahn moved to Boulogne-Billancourt outside Paris and started building his now-famous gardens that bring together distinct traditions (French, English, Japanese) as if to illustrate the utopia of a world reconciled, where different realities can coexist in perfect harmony.

Japanese garden, Albert Kahn’s estate, Boulogne-Billancourt, France, 1912. Autochrome 12x9 cm. Photographer: Auguste Léon [©Albert-Kahn museum].

Many of Albert Kahn’s projects were based in Boulogne-Billancourt, like the intellectual salon known as “cercle” or “société” Autour du Monde. This salon had among its honorary members Anatole France, Auguste Rodin, and Henri Bergson, and occasional visitors like Albert Einstein and Rabindranatah Tagore, to name but a few.

Guéry Lake, Puy-de-Dôme, France, 1911. Autochrome 12x9 cm. Photographer: Auguste Léon [©Albert-Kahn museum].

TheADLP were also based in Boulogne-Billancourt. Founded in 1912, they were run from the beginning by a leading geographer: Jean Brunhes. Albert Kahn financed a professorship in Human Geography at the Collège de France, a chair Brunhes would occupy. Human geography depended on visual evidence. It used both photography and film as “descriptive tools” to provide the discipline with “indexical credibility.”           

Rue des Ursin, Paris, France, 1914. Autochrome 12x9 cm. Photographer : Stéphane Passet [©Albert-Kahn museum].

TheADLP uniquely testify to everyday life in the interwar years. The men under Brunhes’ command were instructed to pay special attention to human environment, habitat and everyday activities. Not unsurprisingly, Paris is the best documented city, showing its inhabitants and buildings from 1910-1931. Rushes shot in Paris make up more than half of the film collection.  

House, Connemara, Ireland, 1913. Autochrome 12x9 cm. Photographer: Marguerite Mespoulet [©Albert-Kahn museum].

Many missions were also sent abroad. Europe was widely covered, as well as the Middle and the Far East. Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Djibouti and Benin stand for Africa. America is largely an unrepresented continent (Brazil, United States and Canada). Most visual documents are autochromes: an early colour photography process, patented by the Lumière Brothers in 1903.

Dune and oasis (eastern side), Taghit, Algéria, 1929. Autochrome 12x9 cm. Photographer: Frédéric Gadmer [©Albert-Kahn museum].

The ADLP's “distorted” cartography over-represents France and its neighboring countries, as well as the regions under its influence. Northern Africa — here represented by Algeria — is an expressive example. Access to some of these regions was facilitated by the ongoing colonial enterprise.   

Panorama of Fez, Morocco, 1926. Autochrome 12x9 cm. Photog: Georges Chevalier [©Albert-Kahn museum].

If the collection as a whole is like a “cinematographic atlas,” seeing how it represents urban landscape reveals unexpected “cartographic” traits. In a closer look at films on Arabic-Islamic cities, we note that their progression in space is dictated by similar choices concerning composition, angles, shots and camera movements. The logic of exposition creates an order of vision. It proceeds centripetally, from panorama to street scene.             

Jerusalem: the ramparts, Palestine/Israel,1925. Film still. Cameramen: Camille Sauvageot [©Albert-Kahn museum].

Town-planning similarities determine the succession in which a film presents single views of a city's particular aspects — panoramas of a city's surroundings, closer shots of its ramparts and walls, detail shots of architectonic landmarks and street views. The repetition and minimal variation of the cameramen’s gestures generates a serial effect, linked to the disciplining of urban space.

La porte Bab-el-Aguensou, Marrakech, 1926. Autochrome 12x9 cm. Photographer: Georges Chevalier [©Albert-Kahn museum].

If city walls represent the first boundary between the outside / inside of a city (the street scene overlaps public and private space), gates have an orientation value. They signal directions and indicate circulation spaces. Not far from the gates, one can usually find a city’s cemetery. City walls thus become the ultimate boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead. 

(Images continued on next page)



A cinematographic atlas

My purpose however is not to discuss the exceptional value of this little known collection, but to demonstrate in what way Albert Kahn’s archive constitutes a cinematographic atlas. Besides the fortunate coincidence provided by their name and the undisputable “geographical” nature of the venture, the Archives de la Planète display a number of distinguishing traits. They constitute:

  1. a methodical assemblage of images;
  2. a means of knowledge and its transmission; and
  3. a specific means of organizing, and associating images.

I will therefore mainly focus on the project as a whole and not so much on specific films in the collection. With regards to the films themselves, and in order to outline their properly filmic qualities in a few words, several elements should be pointed out. The films seem to be in line with what Tom Gunning calls the “aesthetic of the view.” This is “a descriptive mode based on the act of looking and display”[10] relying mainly on the succession of individual shots (as in travelogues). As I’ve already mentioned, most films in the Albert Kahn collection came down to us an unedited rushes; despite this, we can nonetheless verify a growing complexity in the films shot during the 1920s. These films contain multi-perspectival shots and organized sequences, revealing a strong rhythmic sense and the developing stages of a discursive context. (Some of the “edited” films contain intertitles, which impose a logic to the sequences.) Concerning the films' subject matter, everyday life scenes and city views are clearly the themes of choice. In this sense, it has been pointed out that the Archives de la Planète anticipate many of the themes of later documentary films.[11]     

1. A methodical assemblage of images

To return to atlases and cinema, the first point in my argument (that the Archives de la Planète constitute a cinematographic atlas because they illustrate a methodical way of assembling images) relates to Albert Kahn’s purpose: “to put into effect an inventory of the surface of the globe." The collection represents indeed a structured attempt to document the planet. Its director, Jean Brunhes, prepared every mission with great care. All of the men in his command received a copy of his book La géographie humaine (first edited in 1910). In the absence of a detailed program, it remains our main source of information as to the philosophy of the project. (The only known document is a simple list of the subjects to be recorded, dating from 1913 and effectively working as a reminder for the cameramen.) According to Brunhes, and in line with the scientific principles of the time, human geography was predominantly a visual affair. Photography, seen as a descriptive tool, was expected to play a major role in the gathering of documentary evidence.[12]

The autochromes' predominance in the whole of the collection constitutes the most expressive outcome of this belief. Able to duplicate the world in colour, the autochromes encompass a wide range of themes, which they cover in an exhaustive manner. Thus, architectural motifs and details are photographed from different angles at different times of the day. Film, capable of reproducing movement, “i.e. the rhythm of life”[13] came to complement and enrich the still images, which include a smaller number of stereoscopic photographs (recreating the illusion of depth). Brunhes trusted his cameramen to always keep “an open eye”[14] and to pay attention to human environment, habitat, and everyday activities. Despite the absence of a rigid model, it is interesting to note how the cameramen seem to have integrated a filmic grammar that allows them to film similar subjects in similar ways.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the films that cover different Arabic-Islamic cities (Fez and Marrakech in Morocco, Cairo in Egypt, Istanbul and Ankara in Turkey, Teheran in Iran, Baghdad in Iraq). Shot at different times by different people, they nonetheless evince similar choices concerning the composition, camera angles, camera shots and camera movements, as well as the motifs chosen. In short, by proceeding methodically, each view illustrates an aspect of the Arabic-Islamic urban landscape and the whole becomes the visual record of a certain space, the summary of its views. Film becomes a way of describing space.           

2. A means of knowledge and
its transmission

If the images are collected and assembled in a methodical manner, it’s because of their abiding goal: the creation of a visual archive of the planet at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Archives de la Planète constitute a bold documentary project fuelled by the same positivist historical conscience that spurred the constitution of modern archives. Albert Kahn’s purpose was, to quote him again, “to fix once and for all the aspects, practises, and modes of human activity whose inevitable disappearance is just a question of time.”[15] The images were therefore collected and assembled for their relevance as historical documents. They intend to illustrate a rural, pre-capitalistic world as well as the changes brought about by modernization or the devastating effects of the First World War. Their utopian goal of serving as “memory of the world” effectively represents an attempt to symbolically appropriate it. It is no coincidence that this archive takes shape at a time of widespread colonial expansion (not to mention the development of modern capitalism that Albert Kahn illustrates so well).[16]

As a matter of fact, the Archives de la Planète cannot be fully appreciated without taking their particular historical moment into consideration. Despite Albert Kahn’s laudable intentions (informed among other elements by a strong pacifist philosophy[17]), it remains indisputable that the expansion of western imperialism and the ideological issues it entailed played a significant role in the shaping of his project. As Ella Shohat and Robert Stam point out, the institutional configuration of cinema during the first decades of the twentieth century was strongly informed by the consolidation and dissemination of imperialist discourse.[18]

Significantly, this process seems to be driven by a general “mapping impulse," which deems cinema capable of transforming “the obscure mappa mundi into a familiar, knowable world.”[19]. The Archives de la Planète bestow upon this “mapping impulse” an ambitious goal: the description and classification of the entire planet. The collection illustrates, by its avowed purpose and its extraordinary visual outcome, the “imperialist ordering of the globe under a panoptical regime.”[20]. If Hollywood studios, like Universal or RKO, favoured the globe as their  (ideologically charged) logo, the Archives de la Planète found in the figure of the “atlas” their ultimate means of expression. More than a trope of the pervasive imperialist discourse, “mapping” is here the underlying technique that oversees the constitution of the archive. 

Each new item in the archive, be it a film or an autochrome, added to this infinite collection, constitutes a unit that describes an aspect of reality. One could argue that the Encyclopaedia, i.e. the exhaustive inventory of all human knowledge initiated by Diderot and D’Alembert (an inventory similarly founded on the descriptive capacity of images), is in many ways similar to Albert Kahn’s ambitions. It is true that just like the Encyclopaedia (and any other type of atlas), the Archives de la Planète result from the articulation between the whole and its parts. I have already quoted Christian Jacob, who refers to the atlas as “an apparatus that allows for the conciliation of the whole and the detail," lent to “a different way of grasping the world, more intellectual and encyclopaedic.”[21].

However, both the nature of Albert Kahn’s project – the inventory of the world — and the ideological issues outlined above – the imperialist context that informed cinema’s topography of the world — indicate that the figure of the atlas reveals more accurately the complexity of issues at stake in the Archives de la Planète. So, if in principle the atlas, the archive, and the encyclopaedia all constitute a lasting reminder and ultimately, a monument, illustrating a form of knowledge and its transmission, only the atlas conveys the wider problems that underlie this particular enterprise.[22] The Archives de la Planète may constitute an epistemological descendant of the Encyclopaedia, as well as an archive, nominally and methodically speaking, but with regards to their figurative and ideological problems they are best addressed as an atlas. Just like any other atlas, from Mercator’s pioneering example to the 19th century original attempts, they beg the same fundamental questions about the disciplining of space and nature through the image.

3. A distinctive way of
putting images together

Last but not least, the Archives de la Planète show us that atlases can take shape in and by the specificity of film because of their distinctive way of organizing and associating images. This final argument would relate both to the “cumulative and analytic logic” that governs the atlas and the descriptive mode of the films in question. To return to the example of the films shot in the Arabic-Islamic cities, what we can observe is a succession of single views of a particular aspect of the city: panoramas of its surroundings, closer shots of its ramparts and walls, detailed shots of its architectonical landmarks and street views. This is in line with Tom Gunning’s “view aesthetic” where “descriptive” single views are organized according to a larger, multiple-shot logic of exposition. In the case of these films, there is a sense of progression from the general to the particular and the effective delimitation of the outside and the inside (of a city). This is also a cumulative logic, i.e. a logic that proceeds by the accumulation of images: these shots succeed one another, offering themselves to our gaze and effacing those who came before. They suffice themselves as descriptive propositions: they show what is considered important to be seen. Just as in an atlas, the accumulation of point of views constitutes a progression in space. This progression in space is determined by didactical aims –essentially the description of urban space – that imply both a logic of exposition – the sequence of motifs mentioned before – and an order of vision – the progression from the general to the detail (from panoramas to street views). By being put together, these images contribute to the description of a wider space: the Arabic-Islamic city. The filmic image becomes a mnemonic unit within a wider system, the means to describe and to archive “the world about to disappear."


It seems then that Albert Kahn’s archive is unexpectedly informed by the primary way of representing and describing the world as an ensemble: the atlas. This primarily cartographic tool is one of the basic ways of putting the world into image. To call upon it here allows us to place the Archives de la Planète within a particular visual tradition and to reassess some of the issues at stake. The inventory of the world outlined by Abraham Ortelius little more than five hundred years ago was similarly founded on the same general impulse to collect that was to prompt the constitution of cabinets of curiosities, museums, or the Encyclopaedia, and that spurred the creation of modern day archives, among which those of Albert Kahn. It also drew on the possibility of symbolically dominating and grasping the world through vision, constituting an important episode in a history that went from global reach (the so-called Age of “Discoveries”) to that of global domination. As visual devices, atlases beg a number of important of questions concerning the role and power of images in the context of this particular history: the disciplining of the globe as a space of knowledge, subject to different types of control and domination.

Finally, atlases constitute one of the possible ways of enunciating the question of the hypothetical (figurative) relations between cinema and cartography. In as much as these two different but major elements of our visual culture are both preoccupied with the representation of the world and the description of space, they are bound to come across with one another. Could it be that this encounter has taken shape in the figure of the atlas? And are the Archives de la Planète but one of the first examples of a cinematographic atlas?

(Continued: Notes)

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