Atlantic Cities

Those Old Color Photographs of Paris You've Been Seeing? Not Quite Real.

Those Old Color Photographs of Paris You've Been Seeing? Not Quite Real.
Paris 1914

Have you seen the early 20th century color photos of Paris making the rounds on the internet? They show a city on the verge of change, where wall-plastered playbills, sprawling vegetable markets, and horse-and-buggies exist alongside shining automobiles and a new Metro system; a city whose population is largely working-class, a world away from the demographics of the French capital today.

For most of us, this pre-war city has always existed in black and white. But in these photographs, Paris is bursting with color. Their vibrant appearance makes them seem closer kin to the paintings of Monet and Renoir than to the work of the era's photographers. 

The photographs are real; the color, unfortunately, is not — not quite.

A little history: the original photographs are in color, too. They were commissioned by the French banker Albert Kahn, who wanted to use Autochrome film, invented in 1903 by the brothers August and Louis Lumière, to document the world. Between 1909 and 1930, Kahn spent his fortune sending teams of photographers equipped with Autochrome-Lumière all around the world. The boldness of his intentions is evident in the title of his library, 72,000 photographs strong: "the Archives of the Planet."

Those photographers captured cultures on the verge of cataclysmic change: the dying empires of the Hapsburgs and the Ottomans, the last Celtic towns in Ireland, distant villages on the plains of Benin. They are the earliest known color images of countries as diverse as Vietnam, Brazil, and Norway.

Today, these negatives and prints reside in Paris's Musée Albert Kahn. You can explore them on an interactive world map on the museum's website.

This summer, Nicolas Bonnell, who runs a Paris history blog called Paris Unplugged, posted a remarkable series of photos — some of which initially came from the Kahn collection — that he received as a submission in a Facebook message. From there, they were picked up in the fall by Kottke and the Daily Mail, and days ago by Curious Eggs, from which they have spread to Facebook and Twitter feeds the world over (including mine).

Here's a photo that appeared on Paris Unplugged, showing a group of soldiers relaxing outside the Exelmans Metro station in the 16th arrondissement:

Paris Unplugged.

And the original, courtesy of the Musée Albert Kahn, taken by Frédéric Gadmer on May Day, 1920:

Copyright Musée Albert Kahn.

Many of the Kahn images offer a similar contrast. They are impressions rich in human detail and historical artifact. But the Autochrome pigments are more modest.

The Museum's copyright concerns aside, what's the worth of the enhanced versions? Does the alteration destroy their historical value? Or is it a change as banal as a filtered photo on Instagram, and far more beneficial, the digital answer to art restoration?

That depends on your taste for authenticity. One thing is clear: going from the not-so-real to the real is an underwhelming transition, and robs the Kahn images of their otherwise considerable shock value as colorful dispatches from a black-and-white world.

For the moment, though, those comparisons will be few and far between. Until the Musée Albert Kahn sets its own Paris images free on the Internet, the enhanced images won't have much competition.

Top image: Paris 1914.

Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at The Atlantic Cities. He lives in New York. All posts »

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