copyright 2006, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media

Jump Cut, No. 48, winter 2006

Les Archives de la Planète
A cinematographic atlas

by  Teresa Castro

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.”[1][open notes in new window]

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.”[2] 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”[3] — the “visualist inclinations of Western anthropological discourse”[4] 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 .[5] 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.”[6]

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
Archives de la Planète

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 .[7] 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.”[8]

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.”[9]

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?


1. " L’atlas est un dispositif qui permet de concilier le tout et le détail "; "(…) régi par une logique cumulative et analytique"; " L’atlas se prête à une forme différente de maîtrise du monde, plus intellectuelle et encyclopédique" in Christian Jacob, L’empire des cartes. Approche théorique de la cartographie à travers l’histoire (Paris: Albin Michel, 1992), p. 97 [English translation: The Sovereign Map. Theoretical Approaches in Cartography throughout History, University of Chicago Press, forthcoming 2006].

2. Trésor de la Langue Française. Dictionnaire de la langue du XIXe et du XXe siècle (1789-1960) (Paris: Éditions du CNRS, 1974).

3. I’m referring to Eric Hobsbawm’s well-known periodization: “the Age of Revolution: Europe (1789-1848)," “the Age of Capital (1848-1875) and “the Age of Empire (1875-1914)."

4. Shohat, Ella, Stam, Robert, Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media (London: Routledge, 1994, p. 106).

5. Among many possible examples, the Mnemosyne project of the German art historian Aby Warburg (1866-1929) is perhaps one of the most interesting and enlightening. Warburg’s “image atlas” (Bilderatlas), left unfinished at the time of his death in 1929, has been somewhat rediscovered in recent decades. It consists of a large collection of images, ranging from reproductions of all sorts of artworks to stamps, magazine snapshots and maps, assembled in more than forty large exhibition screens. Over the years, Warburg constantly rearranged these images on a series of wooden boards covered in black cloth. He was interested in the persistence of classical motifs in European art and by reshuffling the collected pictures on large black screens, he was attempting to map out what he called the “migration of images” (Bilderwanderung). He described his atlas as an exercise in the “iconography of the interval”; such a method was not aimed at the deeper meaning of artworks in themselves but at the set of relations that can be established between different images. Warburg’s approach proceeds by discontinuous sequences (the spaces between the images being a significant element), allowing its "jumps" and "cuts" to reveal the differences and repetitions where, he believes, cultural memory operates. He isn’t simply juxtaposing images, but attempting a kaleidoscopic visual simultaneity that leaps to the eye. See, among others, Philippe-Alain Michaud, Aby Warburg and the Image in Motion (New York: Zone Books, 2004).

6. Jacob 1992: 106-109.

7. For more information on Albert Kahn and the different aspects of his project see the catalogue Albert Kahn (1860-1940). Réalités d’une utopie (Boulogne: Musée Albert Kahn, 1995).

8. Albert Kahn quoted by Emmanuel de Margerie, letter to Jean Brunhes, January 26 1912 (reproduced in Jeanne Beausoleil et Mariel Jean-Brunhes Delamarre, "Deux témoins de leur temps: Albert Kahn et Jean Brunhes," in Jean Brunhes: Autour du monde, regards d’un géographe/ regards de la géographie (Boulogne: Musée Albert Kahn, 1993, p. 92).

9. Amad, Paula, « "Cinema’s sanctuary’: From pre-documentary to documentary film in Albert Kahn’s Archives de la Planète (1908-1931) », in Film History, vol. 13, no. 2, 2001, p. 146.

10. Tom Gunning, "Before documentary: early nonfiction films and the 'view aesthetic,'" in Daan Hertogs et Nico de Klerk (dir.), Uncharted Territory: Essays on Early Nonfiction Films (Amsterdam: Nederlands Filmmuseum, 1997), p. 22.

11. Amad 2001: 149. Amad’s article remains one of the finest introductions to the films of the Archives de la Planète

12. Both Jean-Paul Gandolfo’s article "1880-1930: la photographie au service de la géographie, méthodes et moyens," in Jean Brunhes: Autour du monde, regards d’un géographe/ regards de la géographie (Boulogne: Musée Albert Kahn, 1993, pp. 66-89) and Marie-Claire Robic’s "Jean-Brunhes, un 'géo-photo-graphe' expert aux Archives de la Planète," in Jean Brunhes: Autour du monde, regards d’un géographe/ regards de la géographie (Boulogne: Musée Albert Kahn, 1993, pp. 109-137) develop this point. 

13. Jean Brunhes, La géographie de l’histoire. Introduction à la seconde année du cours de Géographie Humaine  (College de France, 1913-1914», in Revue de Geographie annuelle, VIII, fasc. 1, Paris: Delagrave, 1914, p. 7).

14. Jean Brunhes in Marie Bonhomme et Mariel Jean-Brunhes Delamarre, "La méthode des missions des Archives de la Planète," in Jean Brunhes: Autour du monde, regards d’un géographe/ regards de la géographie (Boulogne: Musée Albert Kahn, 1993, pp. 202-203).

15. Albert Kahn quoted by Emmanuel de Margerie, letter to Jean Brunhes, January 26 1912 (reproduced in Beausoleil et Delamarre 1993: 92).

16. A point further developed by Sam Rohdie in “Geography, Photography, The Cinema," in

17. Incidentally, the only written work left by Albert Kahn – an opuscule entitled Des droits et des devoirs des gouvernements (1918) – is a reflection on pacifism as a political option. 

18. Shohat and Stam 1994: 100-136.

19. Shohat and Stam 1994: 106. The expression “mapping impulse” comes from Svetlana Alpers, The Art of Describing: Ducth Art in the Seventeeth Century, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1983. 

20. Shohat and Stam 1994: 100.

21. Jacob 1992: 97.

22. For a definition of “monument," see Françoise Choay, L’allégorie du patrimoine (Paris: Seuil, 1992), pp. 14-15.


Research for this paper has been made possible by the Fundação de Ciência e Tecnologia, Portugal.

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