Dancers in ruins of Angkor-Vat, Cambodia, 1922. Autochrome, 12x9 cm. Photographer: Leon Busy [©Albert-Kahn museum].Albert Kahn created the Archives de la Planète (ADLP) at the turn of the twentieth century. They cover forty-eight countries from every continent except Oceania. The ADLP are one of the first projects in film history to envisage film strictly as an historical document.
Scandia sine regiones septentrionalis (“Scandinavia without its northern regions”), in Theatrum orbis terrarum (“Theatre of the World”) by Abraham Ortelius, Antwerp, 1570.
Given their scope and goal (to create a visual inventory of the surface of the globe), the ADLP share traits with a primarily cartographic tool: the atlas. In as much as atlases constitute one of the basic ways of representing the world as an ensemble, they share with the ADLP a number of (unexpected) figurative and ideological traits.
Based on a 1574 portrait, this engraving of Gerhard Mercator measuring a globe was first printed in the 1584 edition of Ptolemy's Geography.
Atlases appeared in the second half of the sixteenth century. They constitute visual apparatuses that include the following:
Frontispiece of the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (“Theatre of the World”) by Abraham Ortelius, Antwerp, 1570.These first atlases met specific needs in an age of global reach. They had a theatricality in their “mise-en-scene” of the world. In Ortelius’ frontispiece, Europe sits on a throne, between Heaven and Earth, her hands holding the imperial scepter and the cross that sets apart the globe. At her feet we find both Asia (on the left) and Africa (on the right). “Wild” America lies on the floor, holding a decapitated head as a trophy. Next to her, a bust symbolizes the unknown land that the Portuguese Magellan had caught sight of as he sailed round the globe.
Two animist priestesses from Doudoua, Daagbé, Benin, 1930. Autochrome 12x9 cm. Photographer: Frédéric Gadmer. [©Albert-Kahn museum].The ADLP illustrate a different chapter in the history of atlases. In the early years of the twentieth century, they coincide with the advance of modern-day Western imperialism. Many of non-European countries seen in the collection were French colonial possessions, among which Benin (known at the time as Dahomey).
Albert Kahn on the balcony of his office, Rue de Richelieu, Paris, France, 1914. Photog: Georges Chevalier [©Albert-Kahn museum].Despite this overlapping with imperialism, Kahn’s project was a philanthropic venture, inspired by a pacifist philosophy. Born “Abraham” Kahn in 1860, he arrived in Paris in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war (1870-71) and went from bank employee to extremely wealthy banker in two decades. Kahn remains a leading figure of French Philanthropism.
The purpose of this article is twofold. It aims, on the one hand, to introduce to you an extraordinary corpus of non-fiction films produced between 1912 and 1931 and, on the other hand, to argue the case for the cinematographic expression of a primarily cartographic instrument: the atlas. Atlases constitute one of the possible ways of representing the world as an ensemble; but they also illustrate a method of assembling images that goes well beyond the field of geography. I will argue that Albert Kahn’s Archives de la Planète represent one of the first cinematographic figures of the atlas. Founded in 1912 with the purpose of documenting the "surface of the globe as inhabited and developed by Man," they constitute a systematic collection of images, a form of knowledge, and a means of its transmission. Such a project, encyclopaedic and utopian, shows us that atlases may take shape in and by the specificity of film.
Brief introduction to atlases
What is an atlas then? How does it distinguish itself from other ways of looking at and representing the world? In 1594, Gerhard Mercator (b. 1512), a Flemish geographer, died in Duisburg (nowadays in Germany) without completing the work to which he had devoted 25 years of his life: a collection of original maps representing the totality of the world. The originality of the project lay on the fact that the maps in question were for the first time especially conceived for an anthology; and of course, that the opus was given the title “Atlas.” Otherwise, the geographer, collector and humanist Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598) had already published in 1570 a compilation of 53 maps under the title Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. His book was the first to reduce the collected maps to a uniform size, and it quickly became both a commercial and a critical success. Mercator’s title "atlas" became the term by which these collections of images are known; the initial reference was to King Atlas, a mythical Libyan king said to have made the first celestial globe. Soon however, the figure of the homonymous hero condemned by Zeus to bear the weight of the globe upon his shoulders (the Titan Atlas) was to become a more frequent illustration on the cover or on the front pages of atlases.
The extremely brief history that I’ve just outlined has, I hope, one merit. It shows us that atlases constitute a collection of maps (i.e. images), assembled in relation to an overall scheme that aims for thoroughness and completeness. It also refers to a further important point: atlases were conceived as easy to handle and easy to consult books. In this way, they were made possible – or, at the very least, facilitated – by the major technical and intellectual revolution brought about by the invention of printing (one could say “mechanical reproduction”). Atlases constitute therefore, from their very beginning, genuine editorial projects. They were conceived for a specific public and their goal was as much (if not more) financial as it was scientific. More than a practical step forward in the art of cartography, they were the result of cultural and intellectual needs, and at the time of their appearance, they constituted a sign of culture and social distinction.
Like world maps, atlases aim for exactness and comprehensiveness, but unlike the first, they demand to be browsed and navigated. If world maps offer totality at a glance — their synoptic view anticipating the look of modern day satellite photographs — atlases allow for contemplation of details and meditation upon the universal. World maps invite fleeting, dreaming looks; atlases call for being looked at more attentively. The completeness for which they aim also differs significantly from the one verified by world maps: atlases constitute the visual archive (i.e. the summary) of the geographical knowledge of a certain time. It’s in this sense that the French historian and critic Christian Jacob refers to them as “an apparatus that allows for the conciliation of the whole and the detail,” “governed by a cumulative and analytic logic,” and lent to “a different way of grasping the world, more intellectual and encyclopaedic.”
During the 19th century, the notion of “atlas” extended itself to other fields of knowledge and creation. According to the Trésor de la Langue Française, the word denoted already “any assemblage of plates, pictures and drawings appended to a work.” With the development of new and better techniques of graphic reproduction and the blossoming of new disciplines (such as anthropology, art history, linguistics, etc.), “scientific” atlases thrived and succeeded one another. These visual inventories with their taxonomical classifications aimed at the transmission of information. They also illustrate a new form of knowledge, organized around the associations that may be established between different elements. At this particular historical moment — the “Age of Empire” — the “visualist inclinations of Western anthropological discourse” found in the atlas an exhilarating visual apparatus. From then on, “atlases” clearly stand for a powerful ideological tool and particular way of thinking about and with images. It’s in this sense that I’ve put forward the idea that the “atlas” can be argued to constitute what in French is called a “dispositif,” i.e. an ensemble of material and structural elements that condition our encounter with particular images.
I would like to insist on the notion of “atlas” as an open and flexible “dispositif” governed by a specific logic. According to Christian Jacob, such logic would be “analytic and cumulative." As the author reminds us, an atlas necessarily implies the act of “cutting” (découpage), in as much as a given space, such as the continents, countries, or regions, is detached from the spatiotemporal continuum. This “cutting” delimitates and circumscribes, it imposes a frame and a viewpoint. It also brings about a sense of progress, in space and in the book. This sense of progress obeys to a particular logic, since the succession of maps or plates in a book is far from arbitrary. It is also characterized by its own rhythms, the feeling of slowing down or accelerating. Jacob goes as far as to speak of atlases as “cinematography.”
Besides the unexpected similarities between atlases and the cinematographic apparatus, the question remains: can atlases take shape in and by the specificity of film? Atlases changed over the centuries, remaining nonetheless a specific means of organizing, associating and thinking about images, a means that found its multifarious way through photography and contemporary art practices. But can one find an example of a cinematographic atlas? What happens when atlases are crossed with the cinematic apparatus? How are images collected and brought together? I would like to argue that the Archives de la Planète constitutes one such example.
Albert Kahn and the
The Archives de la Planète were founded in 1912 by Albert Kahn, a wealthy banker of Alsatian origin who devoted his life and fortune to the carrying out of a broad philanthropic project. Born in 1860, Albert Kahn experienced in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 a “voluntary” exile in Paris. There he started a career as a modest bank employee in 1881. Seventeen years later, after some opportune and successful speculation in South African diamond mines, he was able to start his own bank. Only three years before, in 1895, he had moved to Boulogne, in the outskirts of Paris, and there he had started building his now-famous gardens. The garden brings together distinct traditions (French, English, Japanese), as if to illustrate the utopia of a world reconciled, where different realities can coexist in perfect harmony.
In fact, Albert Kahn’s gardens cannot be separated from the rest of his project, which was to include, among other things, the creation of travel scholarships for young graduates, the foundation of different intellectual circles and political forums, and the funding of no less than fourteen publications. Among these varied philanthropic ventures, and long before Albert Kahn's financial collapse, brought about by the stock market crash of 1929, cinema was to find its own place in the context of the Archives de la Planète.
The Archives de la Planète gather 4,000 stereoscopic plaques, 72,000 autochromes (constituting therefore one of the largest collections in the world) and around 183,000 meters of film, which amount to more than 100 hours of projection. They document forty-eight countries in the world, from every continent except Oceania. They were shot between 1912 and 1931 by five cameramen under the close supervision of the French geographer Jean Brunhes (1869-1932), chosen by Albert Kahn to oversee the constitution of the archives from their very beginning. To these films one should add an additional 17,000 meters of newsreels and other material bought from Gaumont and Pathé. The collection's purpose was, to quote Kahn, “to put into effect a sort of photographic inventory of the surface of the globe as inhabited and developed by Man at the beginning of the twentieth century.”Most films in the collection came down to us as unedited rushes: these range from scientific and ethnographic genres to actualities and other “pre-documentary” forms. They include, to quote but two examples, a 12-minute film shot in Mongolia in 1912-13; and the only known cinematographic testimonial of the 1920 Congress of Tours, where the left-wing faction of the French Socialist Party split away, giving origin to the French Communist Party. The collection constitutes therefore an extraordinary historical document. It contains an unique testimonial of public and everyday life in the interwar years, and it represents one of the first projects in film history to envisage film strictly as an historical document. Furthermore, it can also be considered “an archive of non-fiction film styles.”